Long-awaited follow-up to There Will Be Blood has a similar episodic construction – power-hungry man meets someone equally strong-willed but very different, feels he needs to conquer the other man in order to progress. This one doesn’t come together as well, possibly because Philip Seymour Hoffman’s emerging religion is supposed to be similar to Scientology but with hardly any concrete details – the movie dances around its own (and its characters’) intentions.
Joaquin Phoenix is a burn-out ex-navy drifter singularly talented at making harsh alcoholic concoctions from whatever chemicals are around. He and Hoffman are the stars here – the Sunday and Plainview of this movie – and the other actors are almost incidental. Hoffman has a devoted wife (The Muppets star Amy Adams) and a frighteningly lookalike son (Jesse Plemons). Laura Dern has a small role as the family’s host, and later, the only believer to question Hoffman’s shifting rules (drawing rage instead of a reasoned explanation).
The movie is long and sprawling, and has plenty of uniquely wonderful shots. It seems disappointing compared to its predecessor – a movie less explicitly about religion which comes across as more spiritual and insightful.
The Master drifts for long expanses, like the wanderer at the heart of the film, running on only the fumes of drama and action… [Phoenix] seems perpetually out of synch with dynamics of the group to which he belongs, and his apparent disinterest in the details of the religion he embraces is probably the best case for the film’s own detachment from the same—a line of reasoning one can accept abstractly without deeming it a virtue.