It must be stipulated that other films may rank slightly higher but they aren’t movies that will be in the Best Picture race. The Master is that movie to finally stir critics, or so it seems right now, in the way no film has since Fincher’s The Social Network. After the Academy “went a different way” the critics were not united, as far as I could tell, behind any one movie, certainly not to score in the 90s or above on Metaritic. But The Master might just be that movie.

Currently running at a single point higher than Beasts of the Southern Wild with more reviews waiting in the wings.

Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers has given The Master the rare four star review. He only hands them out to two, sometimes three films in a given year. He opens his review for The Master with

I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson. Hollywood films give you zilch to believe in, tying up their narratives with a tidy bow so you won’t leave confused and angry. Anderson refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences. What a roll call: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood.

Travers calls Anderson the “foremost filmmaking talent of his generation.” And goes on to write:

Fierce and ferociously funny, The Master is a great movie, the best of the year so far, and a new American classic. No way is it the kind of cinematic medicine you choke down like broccoli. Written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored with a bracing vibrancy that restores your faith in film as an art form, The Master is nirvana for movie lovers. Anderson mixes sounds and images into a dark, dazzling music that is all his own.

Travers, like Anthony Lane and most other critics who write about The Master are wowed by it but they don’t seem to know why. It’s kind of like this: That was so amazing! That was so fucking intense! Incredible! I have no idea what it was about. That kind of sums up, to me, the brand of great films for 2012. In terms of fans and critics, the less it means the better. Could this be a reaction to the endless focus grouping of films with pat endings and predictable plots? Could it be that many movie goers who aren’t looking for entertainment aren’t looking to be told what anything means? Not sure what the answer is there but I do know a trend when I see one.

Anthony Lane writes an interesting piece on the film and closes it this way:

Here is frustration made flesh, with fearsome results; would it be heretical or ungrateful to say that there are times, when Phoenix is in full spate, and when Hoffman is revealing similar ruptures of rage in Dodd’s more genial façade, when there is just too much acting going on, perhaps with a capital “A”? Or that Jonny Greenwood’s rich and inventive score is used with such unceasing fervor that you almost want it, now and then, to take a break and leave the action in peace? On reflection, and despite these cavils, we should bow to “The Master,” because it gives us so much to revere, starting with the image that opens the film and recurs right up to the end—the turbid, blue-white wake of a ship. There goes the past, receding and not always redeemable, and here comes the future, waiting to churn us up.

Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies actually does dig into what it’s about:

But it’s also less about that specific set of beliefs than about how humans rely on belief systems in general to try and lift themselves out of an elemental rage, and to assert, yes, that man is not an animal.

But what if man is an animal? That’s the question, or a questions, posed by Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the first character we meet in the film, the man-animal who is to be Lancaster Dodd’s counterpart. Harmless enough, and even maybe a little poignant in repose, the sex-obsessed Freddie, who’s taken a wartime “Dear John” letter harder than most, is a real pistol when he’s got a few in him, and he’ll go to great lengths to get a few in him; one of his first actions in the movie, when he’s on a destroyer in the Pacific as the end of World War II is announced, is to cut the fuel lines in some no-longer-needed torpedoes to drain them of grain-alcohol fuel. Stateside, he gets a job as a department store portrait photographer, and the haunting kitsch factor of such items is evoked by Anderson with ruthlessly accurate alacrity, evoking a spell of familial self-mythologizing that’s broken by a scene of Freddie, drunkenly assaulting a patron, that plays like a brick going through a plate glass window.

He goes on to write:

The story of “The Master” does not move to any kind of conventionally revealing climax. Rather, Anderson walks the viewer through a series of scenes that bring the characters a step forward, a step backward, a step sideways, always maintaining a sense of awful tension that seems as if it could spin itself into a frenzy at any second. Phoenix, slimmed down to the dimensions of a live wire for his role, makes Freddie a compellingly watchable embodiment of human tragedy at its most mud-wallowing loathsome. Hoffman, a longtime collaborator with the director, is absolutely magnificent as Dodd, a bluff man whose air of absolute assurance doesn’t quite mask an unquenchable longing for something he knows he’ll never have. Adams is all business — very odd business — as Dodd’s wife, and Laura Dern is very aptly used as one of Dodd’s more fervent patrons.

Christy Lemire digs in to what the movie is about (although I suspect, as with Tree of Life, the experience of watching it trumps any ability to grasp its meaning – its meaning is in its meaninglessness)

But “The Master” isn’t interested in anything so clear-cut as joy vs. misery. It’s about the way people’s lives intersect, if only briefly and perhaps without a satisfying sense of closure. Anderson, long a master himself of technique and tone, has created a startling, stunningly gorgeous film shot in lushly vibrant 65mm, with powerful performances all around and impeccable production design. But it’s also his most ambitious film yet – quite a feat following the sprawling “Magnolia” and the operatic “There Will Be Blood” – in that it’s more impressionistic and less adherent to a tidy three-act structure.

If you like answers, you will feel frustrated. And yet, as fond of ambiguity as I usually am, I still felt a bit emotionally detached afterward. Wowed, for sure, but not exactly moved.

It would be easy to claim this and other films like it (meaning in its meaninglessness) is really just the Emperor’s New Clothes; how do you stop critics from nailing your film? You make a film they can’t possibly understand and they will not have the nerve to trash it. On the other hand, Film School Rejects did just that – calling it “failure disguised as a masterpiece.”

As stated before, reputable critics already disagree with that assessment. On the other hand, none of them have been able to agree on what the movie was about as each of them offered their own patched up explanation of why we should care for The Master. Almost all of them called the need for a second viewing, thus bearing the responsibility of the film’s confusion on their shoulders. The most recurrent theme mentioned in a number of reviews (but never in the film) is that Anderson presents us with a Freudian exposition through the perspective of his two eccentric leads. Which is absurd; the signposts of Sigmund Freud’s theories that someone would desperately search for on the road to cinematic relevance come one every hundred-thousand miles.

It’s hard to get behind either reaction – so I have to see the film for myself, I guess. But some films really DO need a second viewing. In fact, great films get better WITH each viewing. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films have mostly been strong on character, less on visual impact — but with There Will Be Blood and now The Master it looks like he’s moving away from character and more to absurdity.

Anyway, a lot to chew on for a Tuesday.

More Metacritic reviews here.