As Anderson's highly anticipated followup to There Will Be Blood, The Master's reputation precedes it, since it had been reported 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 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 rug during that overtly optimistic and conformist time.
The story – as much as there is one – is told through the eyes of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an emotionally disturbed sailor with a gruesome family past and likely memories of wartime horror. One night he clambers onto a yacht that's been "borrowed" by Dodd and his followers, and he and Dodd bond over Quell's moonshine. What follows is a strange, ambiguous movie, one devoid of any traditional dramatic narrative, as Dodd takes Quell under his wing.
What I concluded is that The Master is a story about a man and his dog – only the dog here is another man. (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 intimating that Hubbard was a drunk, a lunatic, a bully, and a con artist? Or is it an examination of postwar masculinity, where American men no longer knew how to define themselves? Or is it a metaphor for the director/actor relationship (which sounds reductive, but after all, Anderson grew up in showbiz)? Or all three?
The Master is one of those films that are not particularly enjoyable to watch – though the cinematography and early 1950s costumes are truly evocative of the period, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood delivers a weird, stirring score – but give 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 a work of genius. As for me, I found it visually arresting and compelling (in the long term). It's a film designed to be intellectually analyzed – and whether that's good or bad depends on how you feel about such things.