Reason Senior Editor Peter Suderman reviews The Master in today's Washington Times:
It's tempting to call "The Master" a revelation, except that I'm not quite sure what, if anything, this elusive and elliptical tale of character, will and power actually reveals. But it's certainly a confirmation of director Paul Thomas Anderson's status as one of the most fascinating and visionary directors working today.
Also one of the most difficult.
Mr. Anderson is the director of five previous features, including at least one masterpiece, 2007's "There Will Be Blood," a dark and sweeping story of oil discovery in turn-of-the-century California. Like that film, "The Master" is an American period piece that deals heavily with religion and worldly success, and a power struggle between two towering figures locked in a surrogate father-son relationship.
The first of those figures is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a rootless World War II Navy veteran who arrives home and takes a series of odd jobs before inadvertently ending up in the company of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man known to most as the Master. Dodd is the leader of the Cause, a burgeoning, cultlike group with pop-psych self-help overtones and quasi-religious undertones. He takes Freddie on as a sort of test-subject to help him perfect the techniques of mental mastery he's developing. Between them lies a third power, Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), Dodd's young wife, and a quiet but not-so-subtle influence on his movement.
It's clear that Mr. Anderson, who also wrote the script, based the Cause on Scientology, and Dodd on its founder, L. Ron Hubbard: Both use psychological techniques to achieve mental control, and both have a mystical element tinged with sci-fi outlandishness. It's just as clear, however, that Mr. Anderson has little interest in any kind of straightforward debunking or expose. Scientology is not the movie's subject but the springboard for Mr. Anderson's considerably more abstract ideas.