Russell Rothman’s review published on Letterboxd:
Yesterday I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. When the film was over I walked out speechless, I loved what I saw but had an incredibly hard time putting my thoughts of it into words. I've had about 24 hours to think about The Master and I can say with great confidence, that this cinematic experience has been an extremely thought provoking one. I kept thinking to myself why I liked it so much, the meaning behind every scene, what PTA is trying to tell the audience, and so forth.
First off, the performances are spectacular. The characters in PTA’s films are often very complex and multi-layered, this is no exception. In fact, the characters in The Master are in my eyes his most brilliantly written ones yet and the charisma of each main character and the empathetic performances of Hoffman, Pheonix and Adams are interesting, attention gripping and just utterly magnificent on screen, especially with the help of the intriguing dialogue.
The incredible cinematography is one of the elements that make the film what it is. The authentic look of the 1950’s portrayed on screen is beautifully faultless. The shots in the film don’t only look good but also manage to capture so much information about the scene, for instance the character's feelings, emotions, thoughts and essential background objects which carries the film's atmosphere. The cinematography together with Jonny Greenwood’s innovating, emotion-packed soundtrack makes every scene coercive, compelling and potent.
As you would expect from a Paul Thomas Anderson film the main plot device is character study. The story told about Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd gives much food for thought because of how broken these characters seem to be and how they attempt to cure traumatic behavior with a new, spiritual religious movement called The Cause. Quell is a broken soul, an animal after he comes home from The Navy. He has nowhere to go, nobody cares for him. He’s lost in the world and doesn't know what to do until he meets Dodd, also known as The Master. He is an intellectual that sympathizes with Quell and can relate to his situation. Dodd decides to help Quell by using The Cause, which supposedly helped him with problems he himself had in the past.
*Minor spoilers below*
How I see it, (up for interpretation) The Master is about how religion can help people. This is clear to me because of Quell’s behavior. It seems incurable but throughout the film you notice how he changes, even though he doubts the beliefs and the fact that it has been able to help him. In a few scenes we can see that Dodd still has traumatic problems, and he changes his beliefs in The Cause over the course of the film to make it as meaningful to him as possible without thinking about the people that follow him which makes Quell even more doubtful than before. At the end when he finally leaves The Master and The Cause, we are to believe that he still is the man he was from the start of the film. But in the final two scenes, Quell uses the interview Dodd used on him, which indicates how much Dodd has influenced him. He seems the happiest he has ever been in the whole film (also seemingly sober). The close up of Quell’s smile in the end looks so peaceful and happy and told me how much the superstitious spiritual religion actually meant to him.
To me, The Master is a story of how the utmost troubled people can find happiness by beliefs that are absurd to us, but extremely meaningful to others. It is a story that doesn't preach about how fantastic religion is to everyone but shows how important it is to certain people, and makes you respect it. Paul Thomas Anderson has made yet another masterpiece and one that I felt really connected with - even more so than his other films, which explains why I love it so much and why it’s a worthy contender of my favorite film if all time.