You can tell from the opening frames of The Master that it takes itself very seriously and expects the same of you. Its world is very heavy. And I think that is a conscious stylistic choice, not a directorial ego trip by Paul Thomas Anderson who tends to make big movies with big themes, most of which I have liked a lot (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia). This is Cinema with a capital C. It pulls you in and makes it impossible to look away. And that is aided by having two really amazing actors at the center capable of carrying it. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the weightier character, a cult guru called The Master, but Joaquin Phoenix is the more interesting Freddie, an unmoored alcoholic searching for purpose, and his full-body immersion performance will most likely earn him another Oscar nomination.
Freddie is a WW II veteran adrift, floating in a boozed up haze from job to job, when he meets The Master as a stowaway on his boat heading from California to New York. The Master not only doesn’t mind Freddie’s presence, but welcomes him into the fold and Freddie becomes part of the entourage traveling with The Master from one acolytes’ gathering to the next. The Master has invented a system he calls processing and surrounds himself with a cultish group following what they call The Cause. There has been much discussion of whether this was a story based on L Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and it definitely gives that impression with some of the sweeping declarations of The Master about aliens and time travel, and the way he claims that processing can cure all ills, even leukemia. But no one is going to this film for a history lesson on Scientology. This is a relationship story of a charismatic charlatan and a damaged hanger-on. The Master cannot let go of feckless Freddie because he loves “the scoundrel” in him. And Freddie is incapable of being the dutiful follower but can’t leave the one person who seems to care about him and who accepts him back after every screw-up, of which there are many.
Which takes me back to the serious tone of the movie. In a way it is like The Master himself. By wrapping himself in a veneer of gravitas and science, he is able to fool people into thinking he is deeper than he is. Ultimately, I think Freddie understands that and accepts it, and sees The Master as he really is. The Master is not a deep story. It is a simple one that is wrapped in the trappings of big film. The scenes with Phoenix sing, particularly those with Hoffman. The rest, not so much. I’d say see it if you want to watch two great performances, but don’t expect neatly tied story threads, great insights or an ending that feels settled.