You are stuck when watching The Master between a rock and a hard place, if that rock were a sex-starved drunk, and the hard-place and maniacal charmer of a cult leader. While the former is funny at times and the latter at times persuasive, you yourself may not want to buy in to what either of them are selling.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the titled man in power, and Joaquin Phoenix his unlikely protégé, and while both men give incredibly deep and convincing performances, completely giving themselves to these characters, they are simply unlikeable, which for better or worse, will affect how you enjoy this movie.
It is not so much the L. Ron Hubbard-Scientology film that some are looking forward; it’s almost the other way. Any leader now or in the future could be compared to the character played by Mr. Hoffman as an example; we only look to Mr. Hubbard as a comparison because he is the most public figure of such similar attitude and belief. So it is there if you want it, maybe, but that connection diminishes a well-directed and well-acted film that is less a commentary and more a presentation.
It is the 1950, and Freddie Quell (Phoenix) returns to the homeland from serving in the navy, drunk, and without a home. He has a passing interest in trying to find a former flame, but mainly passes time looking for women to have sex with, and running from those who are bothered by his drunken antics. Soon he finds himself a stowaway on board a chartered boat, commanded (in more ways than one), by Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).
Dodd charms the destitute Quell, embracing his odd alcoholic concoctions, and giving him a room and a job, and welcoming into his group (cult) of followers who believe something along the lines of ‘time flows like a river and life never really ends.’
Things never become bigger than the two main characters, though. Amy Adams plays Dodd’s faithful wife, but she gets little to do in a roll that dampens her energy and infectious optimism. Dodd is confronted briefly by a dissenter at a party, challenged by the police, and eventually questioned by Quell, and while that encounter is interesting, you’re likely to have little interest in the future of either character, in this life or the next. Still, both men give Oscar-worthy performances, creepy, challenging, and unnerving.
It is about the master, as told from the perspective from the student, with neither a beginning nor an ending for the great wizard and his strange dogma, but a strange journey for Quell. It is his head you are forced into, nestled alongside his dark thoughts, whether you want to be or not, just as he nestles drunkenly and aroused on a beach next to a naked woman made of sand; imaginary and fleeting.