Joe Horwath’s review published on Letterboxd:
While the title, 'The Master', refers to Philip Seymour Hoffman's character Lancaster Dodd (I think), the real concern I have is over which actual person who contributed to this movie to call the Master, because everyone, from the actors to the director/writer to the cinematographer to the composer have all shown themselves to be masters of their trade with this movie.
'The Master' stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD who, having become a drifter, stumbles across Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the creator of a faith-based organization called "The Cause". Dodd, known as "The Master" by members of the organization, allows Freddie to join. As Freddie gets deeper into the religion, he begins to question it and his so-called Master.
I don't think a movie has put me in the main character's mindset this well since the last Paul Thomas Anderson movie that I watched, which was 'Punch-Drunk Love'. In that movie, I, like many others, related very much to the main character, Barry Egan, played brilliantly (somehow) by Adam Sandler. Freddie Quell, the main character of 'The Master', is not a character I relate to at all. I have never been traumatized, addicted to drugs or women. However, despite that, I was submerged in his head so much that, for two hours, I somehow felt like I did relate to him. I have nothing in common with the character, but the movie made me feel as though I WAS him for that time. This is owed to Joaquin Phoenix, who did an amazing job getting into character, Paul Thomas Anderson, who wrote the character brilliantly, and to cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare Jr., who, with the help of Anderson's direction, set up shots with the right lighting to put you in Freddie's blurred and frustrated mindset. It is one thing to relate to a likable character, but it is quite another thing for a movie to make you feel as though you are a completely unlikable character. Make no mistake, Freddie Quell is a horrible person. He is rude to people, gets into fights when he doesn't need to, and is just all around awful. And yet, I still wanted to see him do okay in the end, because when you have practically been someone for a couple of hours, why would you not want to see him be okay? I think if a movie can have an unlikable character, put you in his or her mindset, and then make you somehow root for him from beginning to end, then everyone involved is masterful at what they do.
While Joaquin Phoenix is amazing in his role, Philip Seymour Hoffman is also fantastic as Lancaster Dodd. He seems so charming, but at the same time you don't entirely trust him. He seems very kind and caring, but you can tell he is up to something. Despite acting nothing like Freddie, he is just as bad, or maybe even worse than him. This performance makes me miss Hoffman even more than before. Amy Adams also makes her relatively small role memorable and affective as Dodd's wife, Peggy, who has been fully converted to "The Cause". She is almost scary in her devotion to it. She almost seems like an alien. Laura Dern also does what she can with her ten minutes of screen-time. The cast is incredibly impressive, all giving some of their best performances.
The decision to shoot the movie in 65mm film is the best choice a director has made since Stanley Kubrick made special cameras for 'Barry Lyndon'. Most shots in 'The Master' look like a picture taken in the early fifties. It puts you in that time period, and, because of the way pictures were lit in the 50s, makes things look a little too bright, which puts you in Freddie's confused head. The closeup shots of actors help us see everything they are feeling in each scene. This is also helped by affective lighting. Overall, 'The Master' is one of the most well directed movies of this decade so far.
Jonny Greenwood's music, like everything else, is very affective. At many points, it seems unfitting, making the well-established confused tone even better.
Paul Thomas Anderson's script is full of different meanings and ways to look at the story. You could see it as a story of acceptance, or a story of how people don't change, or as the story of how Scientology began. I believe it is meant to be all of these things. You see Freddie being accepted, but this doesn't end up making him any better. He still treats people badly and has no intention of fighting his addictions. However, there are many obvious hints that "The Cause" is meant to be Scientology. Philip Seymour Hoffman has a passing resemblance to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the movie takes place in 1950, the year Scientology was founded, and the movie ends in England, where Hubbard would take up residence. While it's clear that Scientology is meant to be portrayed, I do not think it is any more or less part of the story than the parts of acceptance and people not changing. All elements are equally a part of the story. This gives the story more complexities, and makes it interesting to talk about with other people, as they all have different ways of looking at it.
I loved 'The Master' as soon as I finished it, but it just continues to grow on me the more I think about it. Even the one problem I did had with it initially (I thought it was a little slow on occasion) feels fitting, as it, like everything else, puts you in the main character's mindset, as the slowness happens at points where his life is moving slowly. I will need to watch it again, but if I can't find any other problems with it on a second watch, I will declare 'The Master' to be perfect.