hussain’s review published on Letterboxd:
This movie helped me solidify my appreciation and borderline defensive love for ambiguity. Not for its own sake, but that not every plot needs to be neat, clear-cut, and tight as others would wish so (though again, that's all and well too, and I gravitate towards such narratives when executed well). It can be argued that The Master isn't an ambiguous movie at all, but many people dislike the film for its "lack of direction/sense". I can respect where that notion comes from, but now let me propose why I don't think that's so:
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest work is subtle, languid, and tense. The phenomenal, visceral acting is masterfully applied. Phoenix's character, Freddie Quell, is rough, an unlikable savage, broken, and ultimately human, contrasting and eerily similar (more on that in a bit) to Hoffman's equally electrifying performance. Religious figures, messianic heroes, leaders of cults--mythical characters and humans fascinate me to no end based upon their self-perceptions and how others view them in conjunction with the interesting narratives they conjure about themselves/the world, thus my initial intrigue when viewing the film. Hoffman's Master is charismatic, infectiously charming, quietly sinister, and more: the magnetism of his cult of personality radiates throughout the screen and the audience oftentimes is more entranced by the words he offers rather than the characters within the story. This is a great example of why I like and respect this movie and how it pays attention to nuances in both writing, acting, and visuals: The Master is a film that *shows*, not *tells*. Facts are intertwined in the tale, yes, but the firsthand gaze into the troubles and mechanisms of the characters and the world they inhabit strikes such an intimate line about a fictional movement, identified with the very real Scientology, that most of us cannot relate to. In fact, this is the first piece of media I've ever personally witnessed that garnered feelings akin to empathy for a cult leader. On a side-note, it must be said that Adams' performance is equally note-worthy, channeling a powerful "mother goddess" vibe in an almost more dogmatic fashion than her fictional husband that too contributes to themes about the power of myth.
At the focus of this film through stunningly beautiful visuals and a skillfully accompanying score is the symbiotic relationship between two men who change (and don't) in quiet but potent ways. The way Todd shows both compassion and a domineering attitude towards a man that represents everything he seeks to conquer about human nature (his own nature) is silently awe-inspiring. The film languidly tells its tale through the most minute ways that forces its audience to pay attention whilst respecting their intellect, and never forsaking entertainment or immersion for such an experience. As The Master progresses, we see the quiet decay of its titular character who is revealed to be more base, impulsive, and primal, Freddie the physical embodiment of his own personal demons and vice-versa. The paced way Quell recognizes and rejects the worst of himself he sees in Todd may be my own case for projecting something into a film that isn't there, but it holds my attention and poses striking queries nonetheless, and I don't think that's unintentional.
Which gets to the heart of my small spiel about ambiguity: this film is a circle, ending as it started, (another "overused" feature I love in narratives when executed well) but that doesn't mean nothing meaningful has transpired within it. It's a question, a discussion, a hypothesis about the way we connect and conquer others without offering definite answers because it respects us to formulate them. All The Master does is artfully present a lens to view these topics through and I am all the better for taking a peer into it.