I'm not sure most people will leave the theater loving it and shouting it's praises, but it does stay with you, haunts you almost. It keeps you thinking and that alone is an amazing thing. It's focuses on Navy vet returning from home after WWII, his wandering ways, and how he inadvertently stumbles upon The Master (who was loosely based on Ron L. Hubbard and his teachings). You are introduced to Phoenix who plays Freddie Quell, a damaged man, wandering around in and out of jobs, drinking his deadly concoctions made from gas, paint thinner, and photo chemicals. You can feel his desire to belong to something, to someone. You see how he submerges himself in The Master's, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, teachings and in his world. Never questioning the wackiness of The Master's teachings especially in a time like the early 1950's which such ideas would have seemed ludicrous to most. You witness Freddie and The Master's relationship develop and ultimately how it ends.
Phoenix and Hoffman's are forces to be reckoned with; their performances top notch. The scenes with just them two were so real. Their relationship was that of a father and a lost son, and then at other times there seemed to be a slight underlying tension between them, almost sexual. The scene were Hoffman sings, I want to get you on a slow boat to China", in length was so awkward. Phoenix's performance although painful to watch was raw, even palpable. I think this is his best performance yet. I've always thought him extremely talented and have always enjoyed watching him in movies. He has a certain je ne se quoi, a magnetism. (Incidentally I feel the same way about Leonardo DiCaprio, both of which have been nominated for three Oscars; just give them an Oscar already!!)
At times I didn't know where the story was going or whether there was really a story at all. Phoenix stole the show, despite the movie being titled The Master. It would seem that the movie would revolve around The Master and the beginnings of his newly found religion/cult, but watching the movie, I felt this storyline played a side note to Freddie's. Unless, Freddie and The Master were one in the same person. I did read that Ron L. Hubbard was also a Marine and in the Navy during WWII. More food for thought. The pace for the most part was rather slow, almost dreamlike, and I loved the way it was shot and the color and lighting. It was impressive and evocative of that time period. And speaking of dreams, there was some talk of dreams in the movie, and because of this I was unsure if some scenes in the movie were dream sequences. This is definitely a film that you would probably benefit from seeing more than once, to be able to understand it better and to pick up on things you might have missed the first time around. In my opinion, this film seems as though it would most likely fare far better with the critics than say your average movie goer. Sometimes general audiences don't want to think, they just want to be entertained. It's no Hollywood blockbuster nor does it aim to be, but it is very art like in that it's something to be greatly appreciated.