Joaquin Phoenix spent two full years essentially trolling the living hell out of the press with I'm Still Here. He spent two years, in character, every single time he appeared outside of his home. It was all a stunt, but it demonstrates a level of dedication that is either deeply troubling or worthy of substantial admiration.
That level of dedication is clear in The Master, in a way that is profoundly effective. Phoenix has been the subject of critical praise throughout his career, but absolutely nothing he's done compares to the level of performance he is able to achieve here. It's flat out amazing. Nothing else can express it.
If that weren't a good enough reason to see The Master, there's Philip Seymour Hoffman. Another of this generations most respected actors, who has managed to find his way into a roles that have demonstrated he's a gifted actor with the ability to make characters feel real and grounded on a range that is impressive because of how rare it is. This is the best work he's ever done.
The two men spend eighty-five to ninety percent of the films running time on screen together. doing this strangely dysfunctional dance in the creation of a relationship that is at times deeply troubling, but only in just how well it portrays the reality of this kind of interaction. There's a level of emotional honesty in the script that gives Hoffman room to display all of his range, and more. It also gives Phoenix the chance to so fully embody a character that it crawls right up to the line of being unsettling to consider that he is acting, and not actually the person he's portraying on screen.
All of it is done in the service of a story about two men who need each other. Their similarities aren't those shared by the majority of society, and the way that society reacts to them is remarkably similar considering how differently the two of them are crossing the lines of what is and isn't acceptable. The film is aptly named The Master, if for no other reason than that neither of these men is willing to accept a master. One of them has gone the route of attempting to eschew everything that could possibly lead down a road that ends in having a master, and the other has chosen the route that ends in being a master. The struggle between these two iconoclasts, so incredibly different, is incredibly engaging to watch as it's portrayed by two phenomenal actors who have never been in more top form.
Paul Thomas Anderson has always been interested in outsider stories, and he's approached them with a refreshing amount of variety throughout his career. His last film, the operatic There Will Be Blood, had a much more direct allegory about capitalism at it's center. His most popular film, Boogie Nights, was concerned with community and a sense of family for outsiders, even as it was a story about the porn industry in the seventies. The Master is much less concerned with metaphor or allegory. The film press has been obsessed with the fact that much of the films plot is based on L. Ron Hubbard and the establishment of Scientology, but this isn't a film making a comment on religion or even on cults. The way these two men interact, the way that effects the people around them and the choices they make is the story Anderson is interested in here, and as usual, he approaches it with a level of artistry that is impressive and stunning.
It lacks the vistas of There Will Be Blood, the kinetic energy of Boogie Nights, and the surreal imagery of Magnolia, but none of that makes The Master any less visually engrossing and beautiful. Unfortunately for most of us, finding a theater that is still operating a 70 mm projector is not easy, if not impossible. If it can be seen in full 70 mm, as Anderson intended it, it should be. But, if you can only see it in standard format, it's still absolutely worth the ticket price because it's going to be one of the years most visually impressive films. The cinematography, lighting, set and costume design are as good as it gets.
Amy Adams plays a pivotal role in the film, and she too knocks it completely out of the park. She and Hoffman have shared the screen before in Doubt, an excellent drama based on the play of the same name. Here Adams plays Hoffman's younger, pregnant wife and one of the driving forces behind The Cure, the stand in for Scientology. Her role is minor in comparison to the two leads, but there isn't a second when she's outmatched by either of them. This is another performance that is going to keep her at the top of the list of female leads. She's a powerful actress, with a great supporting role to work with.
In short, The Master isn't as accessible a film as Boogie Nights, and not as topical as There Will Be Blood, but it's as good as either of those films, and the Anderson has proven yet again that he can get career best performances out of any actor he works with. In ten years, film schools are going to be showing this to their acting students as a measuring stick on par with On The Waterfront and The Hustler.