Joseph Belanger’s review published on Letterboxd:
One of today’s most remarkable American film directors, Paul Thomas Anderson, returns with yet another majestic work, that is both visually stunning and psychologically enthralling. THE MASTER pits a disturbed and unhinged former sailor, just back from the war, against the intellectual and commanding leader of a budding religious group, and it is never quite clear just who is playing who. As the film inevitably lingers on in your mind after it’s done though, it becomes clear that there really only was one master all along, and that is undeniably, Mr. Anderson himself.
THE MASTER marks a very welcome return to narrative filmmaking for Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the aforementioned sailor, Freddie Quell. He struggles to find his path as he attempts reintegration into society after WWII, drifting from one pointless job to the next, as he inevitably makes a mess of each opportunity he’s given. He is prone to aggressive and violent outbursts and thanks to Phoenix’s stone cold expression, it is near impossible to tell whether he intentionally means to lash out or whether he truly cannot control himself. While lost on land, he finds himself again at sea, on a boat commandeered by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the aforementioned, and self-proclaimed, religious leader. Dodd has founded The Cause and aims to integrate Quell into his fold by healing the demons of his past. Much to Dodd’s dismay though, some demons cannot be tamed.
The Cause is a religion founded in the 1950’s that helps its practitioners return to their true selves through a series of exercises designed to conquer the lingering effects of past trauma. Anderson insists that The Cause is not a thinly veiled attempt at criticizing the controversial religion known as Scientology, but that just doesn’t ring true. Scientology was also formed in the 1950’s and also employs similar methods, known as auditing, which essentially accomplish the same task I just described. It seems silly to look at THE MASTER as anything other than a judgmental look at Scientology really. While it is a fascinating character piece, as Anderson’s films generally are, Dodd’s difficulty rehabilitating the deranged Quell, points to undeniable flaws in his system. If all mankind is eternal, then we should all be able to find our way back from our animalistic behaviour and toward our true, honest selves.
As technically perfect as it is, THE MASTER is the least emotionally engaging film of Anderson’s I’ve seen. I was so locked in on a cerebral level, overwhelmed by the brilliant cinematography (Mihai Malaimaire Jr.), another obscurely melodic score by Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead, THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and unforgettable performances from actors at the top of their game (including Amy Adams, as Dodd’s submissive yet dominant wife, Peggy Dodd). Still, I was somewhat taken aback when it ended. I felt as though there was more to this story that had yet to be told. Repeat viewings will likely prove me wrong, as Anderson is in full control of his facilities, but for all its prowess, THE MASTER left me a little cold. Anderson may be a true movie making master, but if he relinquishes just a little bit of control, he might unleash a genius we have never known the likes of. Hell, if he does that, he may even lead his own religion some day.