Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "The Master." (Phil Bray / The Weinstein…)
A great deal of the buzz surrounding "The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's new drama starring Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled World War II veteran and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charismatic leader of a new spiritual movement, has focused on the film's apparent parallels to Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. According to critics, however, "The Master" isn't a muckraking expose about a controversial religion — rather, it's a captivating and at times confounding film about two disturbed souls and the dark corners of human nature.
The Times' Kenneth Turan calls "The Master" a "superbly crafted film that's at times intentionally opaque, as if its creator didn't want us to see all the way into its heart of darkness." The film is full of "vivid moments and unbeatable acting, but its interest is not in tidy narrative satisfactions but rather the excesses and extremes of human behavior." Personifying those extremes are Phoenix, who is "frighteningly believable" as the tortured drifter Freddie Quell, and Hoffman, who delivers a "confident, magnetic performance" as the title character, Lancaster Dodd.
Their chemistry is electric, Turan writes, and "though it's disconcerting that the relationship between them gets murkier rather than clearer as time goes on, that is perhaps the point."
A.O. Scott of the New York Times agrees, declaring the film "imposing, confounding and altogether amazing." He adds, "This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief." The same could be said, it seems, of Hoffman's character. The actor "presents an integrated, highly nuanced, supremely Methodical self to the camera," while his co-star Phoenix delves "into a zone of pure, feral, improvisatory being." At times, the film's ambition "can feel like too much," but ultimately, Scott says, "It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to being a great movie."
The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern says "The Master" "is both grand — not grandiose — and intimate." The cinematography, captured by the "flagrantly talented" Mihai Malaimare Jr. on 65mm film, underscores its expansive vision, and other technical elements, including Jack Fisk and David Crank's production design and Johnny Greenwood's score, also impress. (Turan and Scott also commend the film's craftsmanship.) Morgenstern raves about the acting too — Phoenix gives "an extraordinary performance, fearlessly harsh"; Hoffman evokes "a great singer doing what singers are trained to do" — and he concludes, in Dodd-like terms, "As gifts to Homo sapiens go, ['The Master' is] a rich one."
The L.A. Weekly's Karina Longworth finds the film to be appropriately iconoclastic, as it "resists conforming to any preconceived template of what it could or should be." She adds that "it's a film of breathtaking cinematic romanticism and near-complete denial of conventional catharsis. You might wish it gave you more in terms of comfort-food pleasure, but that's not Anderson's problem."
Alas, not every critic has fallen totally under "The Master's" thrall. USA Today's Claudia Puig, for one, deems the film "challenging and sometimes frustrating" as well as "mesmerizing and massively ambitious." While Anderson delivers "superb production design and gorgeous cinematography," he also "seems less concerned with whether the audience is along for the ride." Phoenix's performance is showy but "hard to get lost in," and as for Hoffman's Dodd, the film "leaves too many questions dangling about just who this man is." In the end, Puig writes, the film is "undeniably thought-provoking, but too ambiguous to fully satisfy."