I'll admit it -- I had a mental wrestling match with "The Master" in the days after I watched it, but ultimately writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson pinned me with this sumptuously rendered study of fascinating characters bound together in belief and doubt.
First, Anderson establishes the character of Freddy Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a sailor in the Pacific during World War II. As the war ends, he's a sad character -- sexually obsessed and alcoholic, mixing up rotgut potions of liquor below decks of his ship.
After the war, Freddy rambles through a series of odd jobs, from department-store portrait photographer to migrant farm worker. He ends up on the run from the latter after mixing up some possibly poisonous cocktails. He jumps aboard the first available boat to escape.
That boat is a yacht being used by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher" and drills Freddy with what he calls "processing" -- a series of persistent and personal questions that get Freddy to open up about himself. With his writing and this "processing," Dodd has developed something of a cult around himself, called "The Cause," with followers who hang on his utterances and are fiercely protective in the face of outside critics.
On the other hand, Hoffman's portrayal of Dodd is expansive and charming, sort of a polar opposite to Daniel Day-Lewis' character Daniel Plainview in Anderson's "There Will Be Blood." Hoffman captures the paternal joy Dodd feels at bestowing his wisdom, and flashes to blustering anger when critics or even followers raise doubts. (These critics include his son, played by Jesse Plemons, who confides to Freddy, "He's making it all up as he goes along.")
Anderson's secret weapon in "The Master" is Amy Adams, who's scary-good as Dodd's dutiful third wife, Peggy. Pregnant and seemingly passive, Peggy turns out to be the iron will pushing Dodd's rise, as she urges him to attack critics rather than defend "The Cause."
Anderson moves his story slowly and deliberately, honing in on these complex and sometimes mercurial characters. Anderson shoots gorgeously rendered images in 65mm film stock, and these characters' outsized personalities can't help but fill the frame.