In The Master a scientific thinker meets his archetypal other and sets out to convert him to his cause. In the new movie from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson we are introduced to past life regression as a force of nature, and along to enforce that view are actors that are themselves forces of nature.
Joaquin Phoenix is so good, so completely wrapped up in his character, you just want to pinch off a piece of him and put it on your shoulder and dare somebody to knock it off. Phoenix is matched scene for scene by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. The Master starts at the end of WWII establishing Phoenix (Freddie Quell) as a loose cannon able-bodied seaman that specializes in making moonshine out of booze mixed with caustic liquids (torpedo fuel, Lysol, paint thinner). I cannot remember any film that used actual Rorschach cards in a psychiatric scene but The Master is if anything exacting in its detail.
After a couple of scenes that establish Quell’s inability to hold a steady job we move to 1950 and Quell stowed away on a ship lorded over by Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd). Rather than toss Quell off the boat Dodd sees his double in the troubled man. People refer to Dodd as Master, mainly because of his charming yet conniving manner and his unique method of psychological training. The use of repetitious questioning during therapy is one of the reasons people have likened Dodd’s cult to the creation of Scientology by L. Ron Hubbard in the ‘50s, yet I haven’t heard a peep about past life regression as it’s used by the Rosicrucian Order, and that group is quite public about it goals of wisdom and universal knowledge.
The Master progresses in beautiful beats, moving like a slow boat but always headed for a point in the distant horizon. The Master feels like a film that was made in another time, perhaps another dimension; certainly made for adults who want to wallow in thought and emotion sans explosions and super heroes. Phoenix moves like an animal, his body hunched over, his shoulders like an ape, his face constantly pointing like a predatory bird. Once you see The Master its themes will resonate in your mind, perhaps even enter your bloodstream, for some time to come.
— Michael Bergeron