The Master opens at the close of WWII with sailor Freddie Quell (Phoenix), our perpetually horny hero, caressing a crumbling female sand sculpture. The rest of the movie deals with his quest to achieve a similar moment of grace. After the navy he stumbles through a series of peripatetic adventures and into the life of avuncular cultist Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). Any similarities to L. Ron Hubbard are entirely intentional, but this isn’t an incendiary attack on Scientology, more a spiritual Pygmalion with Phoenix a heretical Eliza Doolittle.
There’s so much to adore here: the dead-on 50s detail; temporal shifts as dizzying as Freddie’s homemade booze; Jonny Greenwood’s unnerving cacophony of chimes and strings; and performances, particularly Phoenix’s self-loathing wild man, for the ages. Anderson also adds a fascinating female character into this daddy-son dynamic. Dodd may be master of his vessel of followers but, as we see in a charged scene played out in front of a mirror, his wife (Adams) has her hand firmly on the rudder. [Jamie Dunn]