Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson may be one of the most talented yet divisive film-makers of the 21rst century. The ambiguous nature of films like "There Will Be Blood" and now "The Master" leave a great many perplexed. Often compared to Stanley Kubrick (both enjoy a languid, methodic pacing and an aversion to quick pans and fast edits), P.T. Anderson probably draws a better comparison to Carl Theodor Dreyer, as both would rather focus on aspects of character development over traditional story-telling, and both are perfectly content to let an actor's face tell the story, as evidenced by Dreyer's "Passion of Joan of Arc" and also Anderson's The Master.
The Master opens with the story of Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a sailor with the navy in the south pacific during WWII. In freudian terms, Freddie is all id, a never-ending pursuer of the pleasure principle (for what is more stereotypically libidinous than a 1940s sailor, conjuring images of red-faced boys chasing women of ill repute down by the docks?). He's a manic depressive who borders on schizophrenic, and is believed to be suffering from what is known today as combat fatigue. While he's not terribly bright, he does display a unique talent for creating homemade hootch from just about any toxic household ingredient. In some cases, it serves him poorly (as when he "accidentally" poisons a migrant farm worker), in others, such as his first meeting with the Master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), it serves him well. Dodd is throwing an elaborate party on a ship that Freddie happens to stow away on, and is saved only by Dodd's fascination with his homemade "elixir" (and Dodd's overwhelming sense that he knows Freddie from somewhere). Dodd isn't just a well-bred host of fancy parties, he's also, as he describes himself, "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher". It's clear from the start this Lancaster Dodd fellow might not be anymore sound-minded than Freddie is. Dodd is the ego to Freddie's id: he's constructing a great analytical complex to discover and disseminate information leading to the betterment of humanity. His organization is large, and his followers are loyal (or are loyal in their own ways). Some believe him to be a crackpot, but serve him for whatever benefits they hope to receive from him. Deep down, Freddie isn't that convinced by Dodd's smoke and mirrors, yet he savagely attacks the non-believers who question Dodd's ramblings.
The Master has many pointed and obvious parallels to Scientology, the sci-fi religion created by L. Ron Hubbard, but the Master could be any god or godlike figurehead, when faith means to serve something blindly without understanding why. The relationship between master and pupil (both Seymour Hoffman and Phoenix deliver outstanding performances) is a little messy; it's full of fraud and deceit, yet there is a genuine comradery there that can't be denied. Shown in 70mm, P.T. Anderson wants you to right in the middle of the characters he's put up on the big screen. So much of the screen time (and screen space) is dedicated to faces and the space between them. People's faces with their emotions being displayed and the still moments that run between the events of lives. "The Master" is haunting and unforgettable, as are the characters it brings to life.