1. The Master is a movie that leaves you vibrating for about 20 minutes after it's over, though you might be at a bit of pains to explain why. I've only seen the film once, which is a shame; it's the sort of film you want to hit rewind and go through again, immediately, right as the credits get going. That sounds intimidating, and it is; whenever someone is told that a movie requires multiple viewings to fully comprehend, it's difficult to blame them for begging off. It's tough to find time to see a movie once.
But Paul Thomas Anderson, with his insistence on 70 mm film, with his roaring, yearning entreaties for a personal investment in film, his faith that viewers will follow you anywhere if you just trust them ... this is what he asks of you. The Master is a challenging, almost emotionally removed, occasionally even antiseptic experience that will nevertheless blow you away.
2. Check the whole notion that this is "about Scientology" at the door. The story has the rough bones of the origins of Scientology, but it's about so much more than that that you wish Anderson would have changed the parallels even more than he did, just so no one would get hung up on it. The movie is not really about the Master of the title, anyway; it's about Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged, perhaps insane World War II veteran who can't integrate back into postwar society. Wandering the streets drunk and broken, he quite literally stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his followers, who all call Dodd the Master and travel the country spreading his word.
The two men take to each other instantly. Dodd sees a kindred reckless spirit in Quell (and is awed by "potent libations" he concocts, including one with paint thinner filtered through bread). Quell sees someone, anyone, to grasp onto. Quell joins Dodd's family/cult/following, but not really; a guy this messed up can't really do anything but skulk around the edges, always one small push away from an explosion, violent or otherwise.
3. Anderson is almost defiantly opposed to conventional narrative in The Master. Matters do seem to flow chronologically, but there is no real arc or growth. Quell makes inroads with the group, then does something to destroy it, then returns, then goes sideways, then advances and regresses again. This can be disorienting; the movie has constant propulsive momentum, but it's flying in all directions.
Anderson, in his most daring move, seems to allow the direction, the mood, of his movie to be entirely driven by Quell (and Phoenix's performance as Quell), a wild gambit considering just how unhinged and rudderless this character is. It ultimately doesn't matter whether or not Dodd and "The Cause" (the name given to his movement) are a fraud or not. The movie never really pretends he isn't.
What matters is that Quell needs something, even if it's something he doesn't want, or doesn't believe, or wants to destroy. So much of this is rooted in Phoenix's performance, which is mannered, erratic and, all told, a little batshit. You might find it a bit much, but it's the biggest clue of what Anderson is going for: He wants to show just how lost someone has to be for them to hang onto to anything.
4. The movie is a stunning technical achievement; every frame feels fussed over and lovingly caressed. It's not just wide vistas, either. A jailhouse scene involving Dodd and Quell takes your breath away before anybody even says anything. Johnny Greenwood has written a less revolutionary score than the one from There Will Be Blood, but it's no less inspired. You can imagine the composer taking a cue from Quell and crazily writing notes right off the page and into his arm. The movie is a lot to take in, which is why you should see it twice. Particularly because I have a feeling a lot of people are going to have trouble with the story resolution.
5. Simply wrapping everything up in a convenient package—we learned, we laughed, we grew—would be a betrayal of the narrative knots Anderson purposely ties himself into. Quell is lost, and even though he bounces around a bunch and affects the lives of those in Dodd's circle perhaps even more than Dodd does, ultimately he is only himself, and he's likely a goner. That Dodd is the only character not to recognize this is a sly, smart touch. This feels like a deflating turn for Anderson to take; even when his themes have been dark, he's always held out hope for his characters, even if they ultimately disappoint him.
This is such a big-hearted filmmaker that he once had his characters all break out in song for no reason other than that he just loved the song. To see him go Kubrickian, chilly, even clinical at times, with a somewhat hopeless ending ... you just hope the ongoing and staggeringly impressive evolution he has gone through in the last decade doesn't calcify into something hard and distant.
But there is so much spark here, so much to absorb, that the effect defies any picking of nits and just makes one grateful. The Master doesn't have the thunderous smack of There Will Be Blood or the high-wire terrors of Punch-Drunk Love. It's something darker and more self-contained; its techniques are its risks. It is the work of a master filmmaker on top of his craft. You might want a little bit more out of this movie, at least on first glance. But there is so much here, and so much more to come.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.