Gumby77’s review published on Letterboxd:
"THE MASTER" may be the most "intricate" yet "frustrating" film in acclaimed film director Paul Thomas Anderson's accomplished film career ... and to be clear, that is not a knock at all. It's his sixth theatrical film, and the first since his "character study" masterpiece of 2007's "THERE WILL BE BLOOD". The oeuvre of Paul Thomas Anderson has, thus far, had two distinctly different styles ... with the first part of his career being fast-paced, sprawling, and hard-edged in the vein of 70s cinema ("HARD EIGHT", "BOOGIE NIGHTS", and "MAGNOLIA"). The romantic thriller "PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE" marked a divide in his technique. Here with "THE MASTER", it is very much in the style of "THERE WILL BE BLOOD", in that it's yet another period American epic, with a tightly honed focus on two central characters.
"THE MASTER" has been controversial, as everyone assumes that Anderson's film is a thinly veiled critique of Scientology, and while there is no doubt many similarities between Dodd's religion called "The Cause" and the early days of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology, that is far from what this film is. Whatever "The Cause" is, and whether it is good or bad is left up to the audience. Anderson, I assume, mostly concerned himself with a deep, layered, relationship between Dodd and Quell, and everything else is secondary. It's hard to determine whether the buzz generated by "THE MASTER" is merely due to it being the latest from acclaimed film director Paul Thomas Anderson, or because its based loosely on the origins of Hubbard's work ... but it delivers in a similar way as Anderson's previous offering "THERE WILL BE BLOOD" without feeling much as a genre film.
"THE MASTER" rolls into theaters at just the right time to perfectly establish itself as a front-running Oscar contender ... a thought-inducing, provocative, drama where you see two completely different people from two completely different ways of life, form a relationship that will have you discussing and debating the moment you walk out of that theater. It's a film you really have to let sink in, for you to truly understand what you just witnessed ... and while some people will surely give it "classic status" after their first viewing ... I think it will take a few years for this film to truly hit that plateau ... which it eventually will.
A World War II veteran turned drifter named Freddie Quill (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled individual, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He's a sex addict ... has anger management issues ... a pervert ... but also somewhat intelligent, as he is a bit of a chemist in that he creates his own form of brandy/moonshine. When he is unable to hold down a job, as he’s continuing to search for a place to belong, he stows away on a boat of a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the creator of a new religion called "The Cause". The two become fast friends as Dodd feels that Quell brings something to the organization that no one else does, while also finding him to be a personal challenge due to his erratic behavior, which Dodd hopes to cure.
Four days after seeing "THE MASTER" in theaters, and believe it or not, I'm still processing what I saw. This is a very unique film where different people will get different things out of it. Themes from "personality", "success", "rootlessness", and "master-disciple dynamics" are ever so present in this film ... but for me what I got out of "THE MASTER" are the two themes of ... "Manipulation" and "Direction".
When someone is a lost soul, and searching for a "place to belong", he usually doesn't have a sense of "direction" of where he wants to go ... but instead, he's looking for someone or something to steer him on the right path. Sometimes when that lost soul finds that person he is searching for, he can be very "manipulative", and what he does is mold that lost soul into the type of person he wants him to be ... and when he's done, he sends him out on a path that he wants him to travel/go. That is basically what I think "THE MASTER" is all about ... not only as an unforgiving indictment against religion, but just as well as a lashing comment on the desperate need for certain people to believe in anything as long as it's something. "THE MASTER" breaks convention while delving into controversial topics that may turn some faith-based viewers off.
Similarities between "THE MASTER" and "THERE WILL BE BLOOD" will surely be imminent ... in fact, there are more similarities than one would think. There is a striking resemblance between Daniel Day Lewis' "Daniel Plainview" and Philip Seymour Hoffman's "Lanster Dood", as there is between Paul Dano's "Eli Sunday" and Joaquin Phoenix's "Freddie Quell". Replace "oil" with "religion", and it's striking how closely they resemble each other ... with the main difference being that unlike Plainview and Eli, Dodd and Quell work together, and seem to like each other.
I won't go too much into detail about this film, cause this is a film that I do not want to spoil for those who are dying to see it ... but basically just like "BLOOD" centered around two main characters ... so does "THE MASTER". The center of the story is the relationship between Phoenix's "Freddie Quill", and Hoffman's "Lancaster Dodd" ... and when the story is centered around these two, that is where the film excels. Paul Thomas Anderson's views of the world are constantly evolving. It's easy to see his personal growth process and enlightenment if you follow the films throughout his career. Here, Freddie is basically the personification and embodiment of failure, and Dodd's struggle for power, dominance, and control over this group of people through his cult shows that he is also afraid of something, just as much as Quell is.
When we first meet Joaquin Phoenix as "Freddie Quell", we immediately realize that something is not quite right about this person. He is a disturbed, troubled, individual that makes you feel more and more uncomfortable the more you watch him ... from his issues such as his anger as a photographer, or his guilt after accidentally poisoning a farmer with his homemade moonshine. Joaquin Phoenix (best known for his roles in "SIGNS", "THE VILLAGE", and his Oscar nominated roles in "GLADIATOR" and "WALK THE LINE") puts on nothing short of a "super-human" performance ... a performance where it appears he is barely holding on to his own sanity (or maybe he isn't at all) ... a performance where it appears we all are looking into the darkest corners of his soul. It was almost like Joaquin had to become the worst possible manifestation/incarnation of a generation of wounded and broken men returning from the trials of WWII, and concentrate all of that confusion, fear, anger, depression, and hopelessness down into one central, singular, figure. His physical presence with those harsh facial expressions and the contorted body shape is a more realistic character than any real person he could've been trying to mimic. The end result ... someone you just can not take your eyes off of. Phoenix literally plucked this character out of thin air and conjured him into this unforgettable "Freddie Quell persona". This performance was so good and deserving of such recognition, that it would be an crime if it was ignored completely.
Almost equally as good is Philip Seymour Hoffman ("CAPOTE", "THE IDES OF MARCH", "MONEYBALL") as the religious leader "Lancaster Dodd" ... a man who wants to help cure Freddie, but only seeming to benefit himself, and the religion he believes in. Hoffman is so commanding in his role of Dodd, he could rattle chandeliers with his voice alone. He doesn't come off as creepy or even sinister, but rather charismatic and silver-tongued ... he's a charmer in public and a quietly simmering lunatic behind closed doors. Is he crazy enough to genuinely believe what he teaches, or is it all a sham? That's a very good question, and the one lingering bit of ambiguity the film leaves wide open. I was literally hanging on to every single word he said in this film, as if I really was the audience he was trying to reach.
The relationship between Freddie and Lancaster is an interesting contrast to that of Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in "THERE WILL BE BLOOD", making it hard not to think that Anderson still had more to say about religion's place in the world. Overall, the relationship is literally presented as a "Master/Pet" relationship that borderlines on disturbing and exploitative. The way they talk to each other, the way they interact, even going as far as Dodd calling Quill a "good boy". The contrasting styles of their performances are particularly evident during the three biggest "character"-pieces of the film.
The first - the initial interview, where Dodd uses repetition to break down Quill's reserve.
The second - the jail cell scene, where Quell tearing his to shreds while being ridiculed by the passive Dodd.
And finally - the climax
Acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson uses some of the same storytelling techniques as "BLOOD", opening the film up with very minimal dialogue and allowing Johnny Greenwood's dissonant orchestrations to dominate. Greenwood was ripped off of an Oscar for his score in "BLOOD", hopefully his score here will get some recognition. Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes. Seeing the panoramic vista shots of deserts, the ocean, the beach, etc. ... and also, while "BLOOD" took full advantage of the widescreen format for its setting, "THE MASTER" is quickly pulled back to take place in more confined spaces that make the story feel more enclosed, and allows one's focus to remain fully on the performances and what they are saying.
As I said above, "THE MASTER" will draw similarities to Anderson's previous film of "THERE WILL BE BLOOD" ... but also (in my opinion) "THE MASTER" somewhat takes a page out of "THERE WILL BE BLOOD'S" 2007 Best Picture rival of "NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN". "NO COUNTRY" was a very cryptic film that had numerous scenes in it that went "hand-in-hand" with each other, or certain scenes that foreshadowed later events. "THE MASTER" does that here as well ... there are certain scenes and certain symbolism that foreshadow future events that you can pick up here. I'll give one small example (and again, this is what I caught):
There is a scene early on, where Quell is a farmer and he is confronted by a bunch of other farmers who are accusing him of poisoning a fellow farmer with his homemade whiskey. He then bolts out of the house they are in, and the film cuts to a beautiful tracking shot of Quell running full sprint across a vast field ... he's running from a particular way of life, and having no idea which "direction" he is going.
It perfectly sets up a scene close in the end with Quell and Dodd (with his wife played great by Amy Adams) in a vast desert playing one of Dodd's game called "Pick a point" ... where you pick a point out in the far distance and ride to it as fast you can. I won't go too much into detail on what happens next ... but it best expresses when "a parent has been bested by their child".
Again, this is one of a few things I caught where particular scenes have somewhat of a "hidden meaning' to them ... a caught a few on my first viewing, but admittingly, I think I need to watch the film again to pick up on a few more I think I missed out on.
One final thing I need to repeat with this film, is one particular scene in the beginning of this film that best describes the film as a whole, and Anderson's method of presenting it. Early on in the film, Freddie is given a Rorschach test by a military doctor and every image that Freddie sees reminds him of either male or female genitals. It's a fairly significant and important scene in "THE MASTER", since it may as well be Anderson's Rorschach test for viewers, because its a film that allows everyone to walk away from it with a different experience, impression, or interpretation of what Anderson was trying to say. That alone is fairly genius since its so rare in an art-form where clear and concise storytelling is often preferable. It may not be clear from a basic synopsis how much goes on in "THE MASTER", but Anderson's tight script and his relatively small cast allows him to explore what he wanted to say in a way that leaves quite a bit open for interpretation. That's great directing!
"THE MASTER" is a very "unique" film because it's "unique within its uniqueness" (if that even makes any sense). There will be things in this film that will grasp your attention ... things that will surprise you ... things that will shock you ... and some things that might make you scratch your head. It seems like a lot, and for some, this film might make for a frustrating viewing. For me, to tell you the truth, I'm still trying to figure some things out to be honest ... but overall, there is still plenty to enjoy from PTA's latest. "THE MASTER" is utterly absorbing and deeply thought-provoking, and like most "PTA films", its a film that needs to be viewed more than once for it to be truly appreciated, and see the overall message that Anderson wants conveyed.
Even so, after my first viewing of "THE MASTER" ... this is Paul Thomas Anderson proving once again to be one of the top masters of his craft in today’s era of film and cinema art ... always presenting the best he can from behind the camera, to getting the most out of his players in front of the camera. He surely got that with Hoffman and Phoenix in this film ... especially Phoenix who puts on the performance of his career, one that certainly deserved his Best Actor Oscar nod. A provocative drama that will have you discussing and debating long after you let the film sink in, "THE MASTER" is another unmistakably unique work ... an intriguing look at grassroots religion through the relationship between two men who couldn't seem more different. "THE MASTER" is a excellent piece of cinema and "film art", and further proof that Paul Thomas Anderson is as good as he’s always been, and will continue to be.