I read A.O. Scott's review of "The Master" before seeing it today, and seldom does Scott rave as he does about this film. After seeing it, I read other reviews, which range from Scottian rapture to Rex Reed's curt assessment of a "pile of unmitigated crap."
One looks for guidance where one can find it. I did that with the reviews, and Joaquin Phoenix, "The Master"'s co-star, does it with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the quasi-Scientological Lancaster Dodd (whose wife, played by Amy Adams, is, by the way, a very thoughtful bathroom mate).
I get where Reed is coming from; as mentioned, I myself sought guidance here, principally because I thought perhaps I had missed some unfathomable depth to "The Master" which only experienced film critics, many of them schooled in the sorcerous arts of literary theory, would catch. It seems I missed nothing.
Nonetheless I ardently protest Reed's scorn of Phoenix's "hysterically misguided overacting," unless riveting acting is otherwise known among experienced film critics as hysterically misguided. Hoffman is, as always, unsurpassingly brilliant, but here, at least, he meets his match in Phoenix. I won't divulge any endings (are there any to divulge?) but Phoenix's character--Freddie Quell--is an end in itself: a broken, spidery, libidinous, cleaning-fluid drinker of a never-was man doomed by genetics and background and environment. There's little Thoreauvian quiet in Freddie's desperation, the latter of which penetrates the film and paralyzes the viewer--or at least it did this one. I've been there, with the drinking (and whatever).
On the other hand I never sought out a Lancaster Dodd, who, as his son confesses, is just making it up as he goes--which we're all doing already, anyway. To me, the Dodds of this world seem like overkill.