Yeah, I'm now very much of the opinion that The Master is, in fact, the landmark movie I had expected it to be. It has not necessarily been easy for me to reach this conclusion. After feeling eluded by the movie both before (missing the Aero sneak premiere; desperately avoiding the avalanche of online coverage during Venice and Toronto) and during my first viewing, I felt exhausted by the time I reached the end credits, confounded by a film that seemed to exist for the sole purpose of subverting my expectations. In spite of all there is to like about it, I walked out of it admiring much but feeling very little. Anyone familiar with my filmgoing life knows that this is not how I customarily respond to Paul Thomas Anderson movies.
But over the next couple of days, it occurred to me that part of my reservation was because the movie I thought I'd be seeing - which wasn't so much an "expose" of Scientology, but perhaps a more wide-reaching portrait of its impact - was not what PTA delivered, and that this was, in fact, totally in step with the reasons I'm drawn to his work. For a guy who has traversed so much of recent American history in his movies (I saw it pointed out this week on Twitter that his movies have covered ground in nearly decade of the 20th and 21st centuries), he's always felt decidedly less interested in drawing deep sociopolitical allegories than in telling stories of individual people. In this film, that puts the focus squarely on the relationship between two men of kindred spirit in the truest sense of the word (they couldn't differ more greatly on the surface), whose relationship is consistent only in the vagary of its true nature and the extent to which it impacts them permanently. Watching it a second time, I was amazed by how powerfully its narrative form translates those feelings.
As I said initially, it's critically important to be patient with this one. I feel like the current culture of film consumption is increasing its emphasis on instant reactions as final stances; it's a shame in general, but it's especially frustrating with a movie like this. The truly great, unforgettable films have always improved over time, and many don't even begin to reveal their powers on first viewing. In my mind, it's only a matter of time before The Master joins those ranks.