For anybody hoping for a hatchet job on Scientology, I'm afraid they're going to be very disappointed. "The Master" has much grander ambitions - to look at man's general inclination to want to lead and/or be led. And if that sounds a little too esoteric and philosophical, well, welcome to this movie.
"The Master" is full of great moments and sometimes great scenes, a movie chockful of great acting, stunning cinematography, and gorgeously unsettling music. But the connective tissue between those great scenes, in other words, the storyline, is so spare and sparse, it's hard to know exactly what to make of it after only one viewing.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson makes very few concessions to the audience. He juxtaposes seemingly unrelated scenes without explanation, presents characters without backgrounds, and depicts fantasy sequences and straight reality with equal conviction. It's often hard to get a handle on what exactly is going on and why.
That being said, what literally is going on is often so arresting, visually and aurally and dramatically, that you're often mesmerized, even as you're scratching your head.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a Navy vet just returned from World War Two, who's having a hard time adjusting back to civilian ways.
After a series of failed attempts at holding down a job, Quell gets drunk and stows away on a party boat run by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, played to perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman. When Dodd confronts Quell, he doesn't throw him off the boat, he takes him under his wing.
Dodd is developing a philosophy of life he dubs The Cause, a philosophy or religion that is attracting more and more followers. Dodd is the Master. Freddie Quell becomes an ardent disciple, even if he doesn't really get what Dodd's talking about: something about rising above animalistic natures, ridding ourselves of negative emotions, and time travel.
The Master is a fascinating exploration of the weird dynamics between a leader and his followers. Two of the most compelling scenes, not only in this movie, but in any movie this year, involve no one but Hoffman and Phoenix sitting at a table across from one another. In the first scene, Dodd fires one probing psychological question after another at Quell who struggles to answer. The other involves Dodd earnestly singing an old romantic tune (Slow Boat To China) to a wavering Quell. Fundamentally, the relationship between master and disciple is a mystery and so is this movie.
My hunch is "The Master" is a muted masterpiece. But I'll need to see it a few more times to be sure.