THE MASTER is an art film (with a capital "A") about the dysfunctional relationship between the leader of a religious cult and a disturbed, alcoholic World War II veteran.
Mainstream audiences will likely be bored by the film even though it's got great acting, beautiful cinematography, and strikingly original music. The problem is that after a terrific first half, the movie slows way down and winds up going nowhere.
Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, an angry, mentally unstable veteran who drifts from job to job.
It's 1950 when, in a drunken stupor. Freddie stumbles onto a yacht being used by Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic, egomaniac who has created a religious cult that greatly resembles Scientology.
Freddie: What do you do?
Lancaster: I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher but above all, I'm a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man just like you.
Freddie willingly subjects himself to a process of intense questioning that Lancaster says will heal the painful wounds caused by the lifelong trauma Freddie has suffered.
Questions like the following are asked in rapid fire succession:
Are you thoughtless in your remarks?
Do your past failures bother you?
Is your life a struggle?
Is your behavior erratic?
What are you running from?
Soon, the unpredictable Freddie becomes the leader's guinea pig, protege, and drinking partner, a situation Lancaster's iron willed wife (played by Amy Adams) views with alarm. She tries to warn her husband: "He's dangerous and he will be our undoing if we continue to have him here."
Some critics expected THE MASTER to be an expose of Scientology, but director Paul Thomas Anderson had something else in mind.
Essentially, the film focuses on the strange, twisted love-hate relationship of these two very different men.
When Freddie tell's the leader's son he should pay more attention to his father's lectures, the son replies: "He's making all this up as he goes along. You don't see that?"
If the story line had gone someplace instead of dissolving into ocean spray, THE MASTER could have been a very good film.
Instead, the first half is gripping, and the last half is boring.