As much as I enjoyed "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia" when they were new, I thought director Paul Thomas Anderson took a massive jump in craft and stature with his 2002 film "Punch-Drunk Love", and then another quantum leap from there with 2007's "There Will Be Blood", which is one of my 75 top films of all time. 5 years later, in 2012 – this is a guy who thankfully takes his time – he released "THE MASTER". My wife and I went to see it in the theater a week or so after it came out, and of all the cottonpickin' things, the digital projector or whatever the Kabuki Theater in San Francisco was using that night decided to melt down that very evening, and we had to exit with the film unseen. Life intervened, as life does, and we didn't get around to seeing PT Anderson's big Scientology epic until it hit the DVD market recently.
I understand it's pretty polarizing in some camps, tearing households apart and driving critics to either apoplexy or rapture. I don't get it. I thought it was very well-done film, though I'd throw in a few caveats that place it more on the Magnolia/Boogie Nights tier than the There Will Be Blood/Punch-Drunk Love tier. You have to start with the acting, because this is a film of performances – from Joaquin Phoenix's 1970s Deniro-like performance as wayward delinquent/freak Freddie Quell, to Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of L. Ron Hubbard (excuse me, I mean Lancaster Dodd) to Amy Adams' awesome turn as his steely and utterly bought-in wife. The scene of psychological torture that Dodd inflicts on Quell on the ship, where he utterly hypnotizes him and literally indoctrinates this supremely damaged man into his cult, rivals any of Daniel Day-Lewis's masterful scenes in "There Will Be Blood". After that particular emotionally-wrought passage, I too was totally bought into "THE MASTER" and stayed that way until its end.
Certainly, there's no veil put on this film – it's a study of a cult of personality and the rise of Scientology, pure and simple. Quell and Dodd need each other, and this film is also about how their relationship was a miniature version of everything Scientology stands for. Joaquin Phoenix's Quell is a fiendish, weak, impulsive, unintelligent and obviously gullible man who solves problems with his fists and needs a "higher power" to tell him what it is he should be doing. Because he's willing to go off "on his own" and beat up any critics of Lancaster Dodd despite no overt encouragement from Dodd to do so, he serves Dodd's ego-driven ends quite happily, and even when most in the cult encourage Dodd to cut ties with Freddie, Dodd's rapacious image of himself is supremely flattered by how much this man utterly loves and adores him.
"THE MASTER" backslid a bit near the end after the story had seemingly run its course. The two men's dream-invoked and very strange reunion didn't really add much to the story, and I found myself still wanting to get a better sense of Quell and what drove him to be so horrifically needy beyond his lost love, his alcoholic dad and dead mother. (Maybe that might be enough?). The denouement of "There Will Be Blood" was thrilling and savage; this film just faded out a bit and that was it. Yet my criticism is tempered a bit by the extremely and deservedly high expectations I have for an Anderson film, so when compared to so much of the cinematic garage littering even the indie theaters and streaming sites, this one's a hell of an achievement.