The Master is the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, critically-beloved auteur of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, a roman á clef about Scientology starring Joaquin Phoenix as a drifter named Freddy Quell that’s sure to be debated for years to come. For instance, is Quell more of a gas-huffing pussy lover or a pussy-loving gas huffer? It’s a rift that will tear apart families, pit brother against brother.
The Master is polarizing, because like Drive, it’s largely an atmospheric movie. There’s no real political or religious message that you’re supposed to take away from it, and it’s not a thrilling tale of plot-driven intrigue – you mean Xenu was really dead the whole time? Whoooaaaaoooaaa. There’s no scene where Phoenix’s character accidentally kills a townie and Philip Seymour Hoffman plugs him in the back of the head on a riverbank while telling him stories about all the tits and pussies on the planet Kolob – red ones and blue ones and green ones! – as an angry mob approaches. A writing teacher once told me that the heart of every story is people and place, and that’s what The Master is. It’s nothing so much as a meditative, rotating series of historical portraits – who are these people and what do they do? – mostly straightforward and matter of fact, without the fart-sniffing pop-psychology you get with most indie films. It’s more concerned with enjoying who Joaquin’s character is than trying to figure out what’s his problem. It’s beautiful to look at, and Joaquin’s snarl-lipped, sex-obsessed simpleton is endlessly entertaining. When I’m enjoying what I’m watching this much, BUT WHAT’S THE ARTIST TRYING TO SAY!??! never much enters the equation.