A figurative romance between the kingpin of a past-life-regressionist cult and a broken-down deadbeat might not be your idea of a fun coupla hours, but The Master mostly makes it worth your while. Especially when the cult kingpin is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the deadbeat by Joaquin Phoenix.
It all begins when the World War II leaves Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) addicted to sex, alcohol, and a funny concoction whose secret ingredient is paint thinner. After botching two jobs with temper tantrums, promiscuity and by almost killing a co-worker, Freddie lands up on a yatch belonging to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who takes a shine to Freddie's moonshine.
Dodd likes to be called The Master, and leads a movement called "The Cause", which is basically kinda like the Osho thing you find out here. His followers laze around on couches going into "the past" to solve current problems, get naked and have communal parties, and get others to join in.
Meanwhile, The Master and Freddie get closer, until one day, Dodd's claims of being able to solve war and cancer get both of them arrested (not because of the claims, but because Freddie beats up a skeptic). The Master sees that Freddie is broken inside, and offers to help him.
The unlikely friendship between the two, and Freddie's attempts at getting over his past, form the rest of the movie.
In all honesty, it is very hard for one to sympathise with these characters - one, a thoroughly self-destructive man with very few good qualities, and the other, a man who is basically a dhongi baba. However, in the skillful hands of Paul Thomas Anderson, they seem made for each other in inexplicable ways. The problem is that they bond way better with each other than with the audience.
Sure, Joaquin Phoenix as the half-crazy war veteran portrays to a T the tenuous hold on reality, while Philip Seymour Hoffman is just as good at a man who seems to believe in every word of bullshit that comes out of his mouth, but not more so than his "followers".
The actors are wonderful, and surely deserve their nominations as winners of the little golden man. The characters, not so much.
In fact, the whole movie is like a particularly elegant piece of "modern art", the kind you admire, but can't quite fathom. It is just as hard to put your finger firmly on just what it is that rankles. It could be that there are bits and pieces that seem rather contrived, or it all gets a tad too repetitive and tiresome after a point. Either way, you will exit the movie hall scratching your head at least a little bit.
We couldn't gush too much about the performances if we tried. Sarah Shoshana David's perfectly calm recitation of an erotic novel we will take, if not to our grave, then to the next really great movie we watch.
The cinematography is excellent, as is the music. Hoffman has a surprisingly pleasant baritone when acting sober.
As we said, The Master might not be your to-go for entertainment, but you won't regret watching it.