Welcome back to the screen Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix has always been a gifted actor and now he is back in his first film since Two Lovers (2008). There was that unfortunate real/fake documentary I'm Still Here (2010) but it appears he has left that episode in the past where it belongs and is ready to get serious again. Phoenix has a ready-made face for movies. He has a natural sneer and to play Freddy Quell in The Master, he effectively talks out of the left side of his mouth which creates a sort of mumble. Freddy is a character the audience will remember for a long time to come.
Just back from naval action in the Pacific during World War II, Freddy does not immediately receive his discharge. They did not have so many words for it as they do today but Freddy returns with a nervous condition or is perhaps shell-shocked. Every inkblot he sees in the Rorschach test has to do with a part of the female anatomy or the act of intercourse. When his sailor buddies create a naked lady out of sand on the beach, Freddy curls up next to it, drapes his arm around her, and falls asleep. Freddy also has very little to come home to. There is no family, or at least none he wants to see, so he drifts. There is vegetable picking on the farm, department store photography, and general vagrancy.
However, there is always a steady supply of hooch. Freddy is a wizard when it comes to using whatever is under the kitchen sink to make some strong moonshine. His life is in a downward spiral and much sooner than later, Freddy is going to drink himself to death. Enter the Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Freddy chooses a very interesting boat to stowaway on. The Master, aka Lancaster Dodd, has discovered 'The Cause', written a controversial book about it, gains acolytes, and travels the country preaching the new gospel. Is Lancaster a take on L. Ron Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology as some allege? Probably. There are quite a few similarities between the The Cause and Scientology but the exact tenets of the path to enlightenment are not the immediate concern of the film.
Lancaster sees something in Freddy; exactly what that is may be up to your interpretation. There is mentor/protege, alcohol supplier/willing recipient, and savior/confused and listless disciple. Dodd sees a soul ripe for the picking, but Freddy seems to have a pretty good bullshit detector. The best scenes in the film are Phoenix vs. Hoffman one-on-one in question and answers sessions about Freddy's life and feelings. Phoenix will most likely earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination for their first back and forth 'processing' segment. This is similar to what Scientologists call auditing. I guarantee this scene will nail you to your seat. But Freddy doesn't always buy what Dodd is selling. He wavers back and forth between blind adherence and violent skepticism.
Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), does not trust Freddy and certainly does not appreciate his wishy-washy adherence to the new faith. Peggy recognizes, correctly, that Freddy is not here for redemption; he just wants to get laid. Even the all powerful Cause cannot transform and illuminate a blind soul for a billion years who exists only in the here and now.
The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth film and continues his recent trend of focusing on very strong leading men. There was Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (2008) but he would wipe the floor with Dodd. These men are strong in completely different ways. Both are convincing talkers and are looking for the edge to take advantage of the next sucker to cross their path, but Dodd is not looking for a physical confrontation; he's going deeper, he wants your immortal soul. Anderson is known for long takes and atmospheric shots. The movie-goer unfamiliar with his previous work (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, etc…) may find The Master tedious and unfocused at times. Anderson is much better than that though, he is one of the most creative and challenging directors working right now.
The Master is not Anderson's best, There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights are better, but this film deserves to find an audience because of Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman may be the Master, but Phoenix owns this film from start to finish; he is approaching Daniel Day-Lewis territory here and that is not a comparison to take lightly.