Paul Thomas Anderson is a master director, but “The Master” will not be his, well, masterwork.
The film is visually brilliant and features not one, but two spectacular acting performances. It is certain to be a favorite of critics and serious film aficionados, and it’s a shoo-in for several Oscar nominations.
People looking for pure entertainment, however, will be disappointed. They’ll find “The Master” too long, too self-indulgent and a little too tedious.
Though there are peripheral characters, “The Master” is essentially a two-man show.
Joaquin Phoenix, in the performance of his life, plays volatile Freddie Quell, an alcoholic Navy veteran turned drifter, whose direction changes when he stows away on a yacht in the early 1950s.
The yacht belongs to a wealthy supporter of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic cult leader with more than a passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.
Instead of throwing Freddie overboard, Dodd takes him under his wing — as both a test subject and a protege — beginning a hypnotic and challenging relationship.
Phoenix’s Freddie is hunched over and mumbles through a crooked half smile. He’s erratic and prone to violence, but also clever and devoted.
Hoffman’s role isn’t as showy, but he gives nearly as powerful a performance. Dodd is suave, confident and playful. It’s easy to see him having a Svengali-like effect on the masses, even while his own son (Jesse Plemons) admits “He’s making all this up as he goes along.”
As interesting as the relationship of Freddie and Dodd is, though, “The Master” doesn’t lead the viewer anywhere in particular. It doesn’t really have a story in any traditional sense.
Though the film touches on religion, it doesn’t serve as any sort of rebuke or exploration of Scientology; that’s merely a framework for the two main characters to explore.