Gabe Rodríguez’s review published on Letterboxd:
"If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you'd be the first person in the history of the world."
This was my personal favorite film of 2012 and, while it wasn't his actual final film, it will go down in history as Philip Seymour Hoffman's last truly great performance. This is an epic of a film, a three-dimensional 70mm portrait of the relationship between two men, trying to redefine humanity in post-war American life. Joaquin Phoenix is also excellent, but it is Hoffman who steals the show with a titan of a performance.
Freddie is a WWII veteran unable to readjust to civilian life. He is forever the sailor adrift at sea, making women out of sand, unable to make love to these sculptures. Freddie is not an idiot; we see him show moments of great insight. But he is an impulsive drunk, not particularly open to deep introspection. And then, 22 minutes into the film, he meets Lancaster Dodd, a larger-than-life figure and founder of a movement called the Cause.
As everybody knows by now, this character is based on L. Ron Hubbard and his methods for Scientology; the Nerdwriter has a great video essay detailing all the elements of Scientology that are cleverly referenced or worked into the script. The real Hubbard was a horrible human being and the religion he created led to an abusive and dangerous cult that continues to harm others to this day.
But to say that this movie is simply "about Scientology" is selling it short. It really is about these two men and their journey together. Dodd's series of hypnosis exercises and repetitive questions over Freddie's traumas allows Freddie to have a quasi-religious experience that makes him come alive. And as he continues working with the Cause, his impulse is to always stand up for his messiah, usually with violent outbursts. Soon, he starts to have his doubts and also sees the shallowness behind the Cause, but it still doesn't change the disillusionment he continues to experience in the outside world. We see how a man with weak convictions can easily be sucked into a cult, but we also see how a person can choose to walk away from having a master.
I really cannot praise Hoffman enough. It would have been so easy to just play Dodd as a cult-leader and charlatan, which is what he basically is. But Dodd is also a jovial, passionate man, one who believes intently in every word he is selling and sometimes laughs in the middle of exercises with a personality reminiscent of Orson Welles. He loves to sing, both in performance and privately with Freddie. Dodd may be a huckster, selling his pseudo-science as a religion and philosophy, but he's also a man who loves life, and he clearly cares about Freddie (with homoerotic undertones). When they say goodbye for the last time, you really do get a sense that both men care about each other. It's an unconsummated romance that can never be. What brought them together was a cult built on meaningless philosophy but, "in another life," they could have been great friends.
I can understand why THE MASTER did not quite take off with mainstream audiences. It's a leisurely-paced film that lacks the strong punch to the gut that BOOGIE NIGHTS, MAGNOLIA, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD all had. But Paul Thomas Anderson is truly one of the great directors and he is able to capture loneliness and humiliation in ways that are so penetrating. When THE MASTER ends, you might find yourself scratching your head, wondering what it was all about. But it's a film that stays with you over time, and like all of Anderson's work, it's about the experience more than the destination.