Anderson's highly anticipated followup to There Will Be Blood, The Master's reputation precedes it, as it had been reported for quite a while that the film was a dramatization of the early days of Scientology and its leader L. Ron Hubbard.
In fact the titular "Master" - one Lancaster Dodd (Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman) - is obviously modeled on Hubbard, and certain tenets of his religion (known as "The Source") are remarkably similar to those in Scientology. But it's clear that Anderson isn't trying to blow the lid off of the infamous church/cult's secrets so much as he is trying to figure out just how such a crazy organization got started in the first place. The answer, it seems, lies in the troubled, soul-searching years America went through after World War II - said troubles and soul-searching usually brushed under the carpet during that overtly optimistic and conformist time.
The story - so much as there is a story - is told through the eyes of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an emotionally disturbed sailor with a horrific family past and likely memories of wartime horror. One night he clambers onto a yacht being "borrowed" by Dodd and his followers, and he and Dodd bond over Quell's moonshine. What follows is a strange and highly ambiguous movie, one relatively devoid of any traditional dramatic narrative, as Dodd takes Quell under his wing.
What I got out of it is that The Master is sort of the story about a man and his dog - only the dog here is another man. (I suspect that the title is a clue.) For Quell is a dog - a mad dog, frequently scolded by Dodd for being "naughty" and put through rigorous training sessions in order to "tame" him.
But what does it all mean? Is it a satire of Scientology, with Anderson suggesting Hubbard was a drunk, a lunatic, a bully, and/or a con artist? Is it an examination of postwar masculinity, where American men no longer knew how to define themselves? Or could it even be a metaphor for the director/actor relationship (which sounds reductive, but after all, Anderson grew up in showbiz)? Answers are hard to find amidst the haze.
The Master is one of those films that's not particularly enjoyable to watch - though the cinematography and early 1950s costumes are truly evocative, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood delivers a weird, stirring score - but gives you a lot to mull over afterward. Some will be bored by the lack of story. Some will find it muddled and pretentious. Some will find it to be a work of genius. As for me, I found it visually arresting and compelling - but perhaps only in the long term. It's a film deliberately designed to be intellectually analyzed - and whether that's a good thing or a bad thing depends on how you feel about intellectually analyzing movies.