Milo Paulus’s review published on Letterboxd:
What a mad, bold, brave stroke of genius this film is from a true cinematic master Paul Thomas Anderson, who along with two of the greatest 21st Century performances builds a fascinating character study creating a sorrowful and distinctively American poem that is a devastating one to shake.
The sea glistening in the sun, a not quite that young and well-worn face, expressionless, being attacked by the wind, young men lazing, playing on the beach: Paul Thomas Anderson's new film starts with strong, ambivalent, volatile images whose meaning is not quite clear. They indicate peace, hope, joy of life, but there is an eeriness to them, an ambiguousness, the sense of something not quite right. They are a little to clean, a little too bright, a little too optimistic. And rightly so: the young man we see, Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, just released from the military, is a broken man. Aimless, lost, a slave to addiction. A lost soul which nobody wants to rescue.
While the final act was considerably weaker—narratively and thematically—than the brilliant preceding two it still manages to leave an indelible mark on its audience who just experienced an odyssey through the psyche of two riveting characters. Unlike Anderson's last film, There Will Be Blood, The Master is not as carefully structured, the longer it goes on the more it tends to meander, held together by the atmospheric density Anderson, his DoP and the composer, create. And yet, it is this looseness, this apparent aimlessness that makes The Master so powerful.
Its magic lies not in its rare emotional outbursts but in the way it not only portrays but in its very structure and imagery mirrors the slow waking up of a man who had come to accept that he had no place in this world. Dramatic scenes, particularly the ritualistic auditing scene, are succeeded by long passages in which nothing eventful really happens.
The Master asks many tough questions, and doesn't give in to giving easy answers. Along all of the questions it poses are several other branches of the story, many relating to deep-moving psychology and past traumas. The movie's approach to and presentation of this is rather unique, and presents us with many thought-provoking queries. Add to that some remarkable art direction, a sublime cast and excellent directing / screen writing, and it's a movie that's as powerful as it is subtle, as welcoming as it is controversial. This is an achievement few modern-day directors have accomplished with such esteem as Paul Thomas Anderson, which definitely marks him as a leading pioneer of alternative, powerful dramas in today's movie industry.
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What a horrible, horrible loss Philip Seymour Hoffman was; a man with unmeasurable talent and one of the unquestionable all-time greatest, and this film perfectly proves that point where he dominates the screen with charisma, poise, brooding frustration and utter control. Such a master, lost at 46 years of age. The man could've had 40 more years of stellar films left in him. This piece of IMDb trivia depresses me: "Philip Seymour Hoffman had his first drink in 23 years at the wrap party for this film, leading to a relapse of his alcoholism."
Side note: For anyone who isn't that familiar with Scientology, I greatly implore you to learn more about the 'religion'. It will entirely shift your perspective on this film and enhance it even more.