At the center of the story is Freddie’s would-be initiation — and indoctrination — into the Cause. Thing is, he’s too stubborn (and, to be honest, dense) for it to take. A cult-like group with clear and ultimately beside-the-point parallels to Scientology, the Cause is led by Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, who increasingly finds himself to be the only one standing up for Freddie.

As intriguing as their dynamic can be, and as brilliant as the two central performances are, Anderson doesn’t do much with it once he’s set it up. Freddie is animalistic, erratic, and constantly drunk; the Master is his opposite. Rinse, repeat, and glean from it what you will. For as deliberately vague as The Master’s peripheral concerns are, its core is deceptively simple. Anderson is nearly unparalleled in his ability to dress up his drama in gravitas and prestige but, once shorn of their accoutrements, the ideas behind his work have a tendency to feel slight even as the visuals remain arresting throughout.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in The Master.
Joaquin Phoenix stars in The Master.

Eventually, though, the zero-sum feeling evinced by The Master comes into focus. Anderson’s talent as an image-maker is continually impressive and, even if not every one of his punches lands, all 70 millimeters of this film are stunning. We’re reminded as much by the look as by the actual events of the ways in which Freddie searches for meaning, often in the wrong places; to acknowledge a higher power is also to submit, and for someone like him this may well be one of few lines in the sand he isn’t willing to cross — perhaps at his own peril. Dodd may be a master, but his pupil isn’t much of a servant.

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