Jon’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Master is essentially the story of a broken alcoholic ex-soldier, psychologically damaged by his experiences in WW2 being helplessly drawn to a charismatic cult leader. He becomes an integral and violent part of his flock, while simultaneously experiencing serious cognitive dissonance, alongside with severe alcoholism.
Coupling beautiful shooting with a fantastic period score, The Master pushes the audience into the eery world of this 1950s cult, and doesn't let us surface for air until the very end, at which point the outside world is as bleak and transient to us as it must be for Quell.
There's not much of a story; The Master is very much a character piece, exploring the complicated relationship between a cult leader and his faithful servant; between a scheming master and a mad dog. Everything else in the film is secondary.
I love Joaquin Phoenix, but I can't decide whether I love or hate him in this. There's something sad and pathetic about seeing such a broken person being manipulated by such a dark and powerful person. I hate him, just because his character - Freddie Quell - is so damaged, so unstable, so abusive, and so loathsome that the audience begins to associate his face with the lecherous, dangerous, irrational animal he is. I love him because he makes me hate him.
Hoffman brings the opposite; the audience neither loves nor hates his character, just fears him. He's amicable, jovial, charismatic, and streaked with a fiery temper which occasionally explodes without warning, when his beliefs and teachings are questioned. No one would have been more perfect for the role. Literally no one.
The story is long and listless, but it's really just a frame for Phoenix and Hoffman's characters. The lack of story is matched only by the beauty of the film's composition. It requires a lot of patience to sit through, but it is ultimately quite rewarding.