Devon Seltzer’s review published on Letterboxd:
A cult is a seductive thing, it draws people in with shiny words and bright, appealing ideas. It plays on the basic human needs of knowledge, acceptance and companionship. It then twists those people, it changes them, making them what it needs, not what they need. Those rare few lucky enough to leave a cult can often look back and think, what was that all about? Why did I do that? Left confused by the past, they have no choice but to look towards the future. This pretty much sums up how I felt about The Master.
Freddie Quell is a lost soul, after surviving the pacific theater in WWII, he returns home with nothing to show for it but PTSD and severe alcoholism. On the run after accidentally poisoning a man, Freddie finds himself on board the boat of one Lancaster Dodd. Dodd is a charismatic figure who runs a new religious movement devoted to perfecting humanity through an understanding of past lives. Can this new system of belief free Freddie from his inner demons, or will he be doomed to wander through history alone and afraid?
First and foremost I must talk about what I do grasp of The Master, that it is an actor's movie, through and through. I've never been a big fan of Joaquin Phoenix, never having seen him throw himself into a role, until today. His transformation into Freddie goes beyond the physical, into the emotional and spiritual. Freddie is a bent and broken man, scarred on his skin and soul, and Phoenix brings every bit of his haunted existence to phantasmal unlife on screen. Then you have Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Dodd. Hoffman is the master, and not just the character. Few actors could ever hope to bring the easy charisma of such a character alive like Hoffman does. If this man couldn't convince you to drink the Kool-Aid, no one could.
The film really dazzles when the two of them share the screen, pairing off for what seem like simple conversational scenes, but are really nail-biting moments of tension as two titanic performances play off of each other for our delight. The chemistry shared between Phoenix and Hoffman is potent enough to OD on.
I'm not as sure how I feel about the story, as the credits rolled I was left feeling much like Freddie, bewildered and somewhat out of synch with reality. The film is ethereal, moving along at a languid pace, but jumping from event to event with a startling speed, which left me feeling lost and rattled most of time. Few scenes actually link with one another, and many end up feeling out of place. However, I'm not sure if I can mark this against the picture, because I have a feeling that I was meant to feel like Freddie, to see this world through his addled eyes. How much of the movie is real, how much does he imagine? All and none could be the answer to both questions.
The Master is a classy, precise piece of art, freshly presented still smelling of veneer and wood shavings. Each frame of the movie is worthy of hanging in an art gallery. And somehow, the performances manage to outshine the technical miracles on display. There are a trillion things to love about the film, and yet I felt at arms length from it for most of its duration. However, the film is seductive in the way the best cults are, and I'm sure I will be drawn back to it again, ready to sit patiently and learn at its wise, unknowable feet.