Simon Ramshaw’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Go to that landless latitude, and good luck. For 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." - Lancaster Dodd
When The Master gets it's groove on, there's nothing like it that has ever come before. There's some absolutely stunning film-making going on here, and its visceral punch heads straight for your heart, shooting to thrill. The stand-out for me is the first 'informal processing' scene, where it is little more than Joaquin Phoenix unblinkingly answering Philip Seymour Hoffman's intimate questions with the most brutal, unflinching honesty imaginable. And this is when The Master is at its best: just two men (one calm and collected, the other wild and animalistic) talking.
The Master's central relationship is possibly one of the most interesting pairings in cinematic history, not just because each half is hopelessly mismatched with the other, but because of the two actors playing off each other. Joaquin Phoenix is faultless here, throwing every possible facate he has into every aspect of his performance. His physicality often speaks more than his slurred words do, and his eyes are simply hypnotic. In the scene I mentioned before where he just does not close his eyes, he is one of the most dominant screen presences you are likely to have encountered in years. Philip Seymour Hoffman is equally as good in the opposite way; it's all about his dialogue. While he too commands the screen when Phoenix does not have it, his 'Master' is the Master of Language. Every delivery of every word is designed to create a dual-sense of calm and unease, to show us how charismatic he can be while also displaying his casual madness.
Paul Thomas Anderson has always been an intriguing director to me, and he most certainly has kept it after this. Having only seen There Will Be Blood and his ill-advised short Couch, I wasn't quite sure what path The Master would take. And I'm still not sure. In sharp contrast to the slow-building tension followed by a staggering burst of emotion and violence in There Will Be Blood, The Master doesn't really, well, go anywhere. As we follow Freddie Quell's life around, he goes in circles, gets stuck in ruts, doesn't help himself. It's a scatter-shot approach to an epic tale, and I honestly don't quite know what to think of that. It's effective to see the structure of the plot mirroring Quell's own life, but does it make the film any better? Personally, I don't think it does.
But that is the only complaint I have. Everything else is cinema at its very best. All of the characters are wonderfully intriguing, the script is dense and layered, the score is at once stirring, unsettling and atmospheric and the cinematography is stunning. This is a film I'll most definitely be coming back to in years to come, and I just hope that one day I'll be able to unlock all of its secrets. If it actually has any, and it isn't just highly elaborate hokum, like the titular Master's schemes themselves.