"The Master," Paul Thomas Anderson's new film about a religion with a strong whiff of Scientology, is finding a following from critics, who are falling over themselves to find synonyms for "masterpiece."
Raves about the film are piling up, with reviewers like Rolling Stone's Peter Travers calling it among the year's best. Overall, the film has scored a smashing 85 percent "fresh" rating on the critics aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
"The Master" opens in limited release Friday and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a pseudo-prophet of the post-World War II era with the colorful name of Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix as his mentally disturbed disciple. It marks Anderson's first film since 2007's Oscar-winning "There Will Be Blood."
In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan noted that the dark drama is not for all tastes, but he said that "The Master" is a mesmerizing journey that will be embraced by movie lovers. He heaped praise on the performances and the craftsmanship behind the production.
"That dedication to immaculate filmmaking extends to all areas, including Jonny Greenwood's brooding music, Mark Bridges' costumes and the editing by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty," Turan wrote. "All have worked with Anderson and his elusive style before, and if you appreciate filmmaking at this level you are more than grateful that it's happened again."
Also taken in by the often opaque examination of religious charlatanism was The New York Times' resident sage A.O. Scott, who labeled it "altogether amazing." He noted that while some may fault Anderson for falling short of his outsized ambitions, his film — from the acting of Phoenix and Hoffman to the lush visuals — represents a stunning achievement.
"It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to being a great movie," Scott wrote. "There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming. Count me in."
Writing in MSN Movies, Glenn Kenny wasn't content with simply calling the film one of the year's best. He claims that Anderson's distilled and penetrating approach to the story deserves to rank among the all-time greats.
"'He's just making it up as he goes along,' one character says of Dodd's 'Cause' late in the film," Kenny writes. "'The Master' doesn't condemn Dodd for that; in fact, one takeaway from the movie is that that's exactly what we're all doing. And 'The Master' is an object demonstrating just how terrifying/exhilarating that state of being tends to be. Quite possibly the movie of the year, or the decade."
But the critical hosannas were not universal. In TheWrap, Alonso Duralde said the film has its merits, but never quite gels. In particular, he had difficulty buying the central relationship between Hoffman's charismatic huckster and Phoenix's rageful enforcer, claiming that in this case opposites shouldn't attract.
"Ultimately, however, both characters are so very extreme that you find yourself wishing for a movie about one or the other," Duralde writes. "Dodd is ultimately a secondary character here — imagine 'My Week with L. Ron' — and while [Phoenix's] story is a compelling one, the movie is pulled in too many directions by these two unbalanced protagonists."
Also in the sourpuss row was Time Magazine's Richard Corliss, who branded the film a "bore" and called it both overly long and emotionally incoherent.
"The problem with The Master is that it doesn’t extend or expand Anderson’s artistic journey," Corliss writes. "Indeed, the movie violates a cardinal rule of the father-son or master-servant plot: that the acolyte will somehow change his mentor — will either fulfill his mission (in, say, a zillion buddy-cop movies) or overthrow him (your Oedipus, your Luke Skywalker)."
Those detractors were outliers, however, with "The Master" enjoying some of the strongest reviews of any film this year. Of course, there's no word yet on what noted Scientologist Tom Cruise thought.