Wesley Morris: 1. “The Master”
It was easy to walk into Paul Thomas Anderson’s cult tower expecting something seismic to happen and feel only tremors. I don’t know what seismic constitutes: murder, disaster, some statement about our times? But this is an enormous film about a small, drifting man who meets a physically and emotionally larger man who uses his new friend to practice his spiritual ambitions. Loosely, Anderson evoked the life and times of L. Ron Hubbard, the Scientology founder, but he forgoes a social statement in favor of dual character study. The drifter thinks he wants to believe in something higher than himself but simply can’t, while the spiritualist believes he is that something higher. Anderson is the best cinematic storyteller in American movies. In two movies, he’s evolved from a freewheeling nutcase to a hulking classicist, from a young punk to a prematurely wise soul. He has a vision and, it’s rare to say this, but it might require more than viewing to see it fully.