Nobody could possibly mistake The Master for a small, unassuming, run-of-the-mill movie. Granted, every film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) is a major event — he's the closest analog to Kubrick we have at the moment, emerging every three to five years to confound expectations with something truly singular. Even his Adam Sandler movie was unprecedented.
But The Master is being treated as something extra-special. Anderson shot it in 70mm, an almost quixotic gesture given that good ol' 35mm is currently experiencing its death rattle. He chose to precede its official world premiere at the Venice Film Festival with a series of surprise engagements around the country, in one case springing it on an unsuspecting L.A. audience following a repertory screening of The Shining. Early rumors that the film was about Scientology were followed by emphatic denials that it's about Scientology, which of course only fanned the fires of curiosity and anticipation. Hell, the very title demands obeisance. In the face of all this hoopla, would we even recognize dramaturgical skimpiness if we saw it?
The Master's narrative presents an epic battle of wills that's ripe for interpretation. We're first introduced to an alcoholic, sexually frustrated Navy vet, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who still seems very much at sea in the years immediately following WWII. One night in 1950, Freddie staggers blindly onto a yacht owned by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the figurehead of a suspiciously familiar self-improvement program called The Cause. Dodd instantly takes a shine to Freddie, and does his best to indoctrinate him; Freddie, for his part, seems genuinely grateful for the attention and fellowship but instinctively rebellious regarding The Cause's methods, which straddle the thin line between Freudian analysis and the most sadistic variety of acting-school exercises.
Read the full review here, and watch the trailer after the jump.