The Master

PhotobucketLet me first preface my review by saying, I am a fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood: I’ve found something interesting in everything he’s ever done. Needless to say my expectations for his latest opus, The Master, were high. Unfortunately I’m sad to report, this production is a distinctly unenjoyable chore to watch.

The Master features a narrative that is dramatically inert, offering a very weak storyline about how a drifter fell into a religious sect. Lancaster Dodd is their questionable leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. On paper that could have been the searing portrait of a svengali and his followers. But the script doesn’t attempt anything daring. Instead we get relaxed shots of water around a ship, a motorcycle speeding through the desert, people listening to but not interacting with the leader. We’re never given much proof as to why he has a following. He doesn’t even have anything particularly interesting to say. This is especially problematic in a film depicting a charismatic guide. Just how far his reach is outside this small circle of friends is never depicted but Lancaster doesn’t seem to engender much devotion even among these people. He isn’t especially appealing or seem to really improve anyone’s life. Even his own son admits he just makes it up as he goes along. One poor soul who does respond to his organization is Freddie Quell.

There is not one engaging character for the audience to get behind and champion. Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, an aimless drifter, mentally consumed by two pursuits, alcohol and sexual desire. The plot drifts along showing us Joaquin Phoenix acting bizarre. The actor is all angles twisting his body into contorting shapes ostensibly to show us how odd he is. He keeps one eye closed throughout the picture in a facial squint that recalls Robin Williams in the movie Popeye. It’s an off putting performance. We cannot possibly identify with him, nor do we feel sorry for him. He’s too repellant . It simply makes the movie a difficult experience to endure. He creates a female figure out of sand at the beach and simulates sex with thrusting motions. He manufactures alcoholic drinks out of household products like paint thinner and Lysol. He’s both physically and intellectually ugly. Then there’s Lancaster Dodd, the proverbial “master” of the film. He’s sort of a self styled guru in charge of a small flock that follow him. He’s written a book entitled “The Cause” which is a Bible of sorts for his faith based organization. Yet we have no concept of how many people actually subscribe to his beliefs. As presented here it’s an intimate circle, an insignificant number of people. Most of the plot focuses on the relationship between these two men. Freddie is so mentally messed up, we’re to accept that at least under Lancaster’s guidance, he has instilled a sense of purpose in the wayward creature. He becomes his right hand man willing to beat up anyone who dares disagree with Lancaster’s views. But we’re never given a reason why Freddie is so impressed by him. Without that reason the justification for the story falls apart.

The heart of the movie is the dialogue between teacher Lancaster Dodd and student Freddie Quell who becomes a guinea pig for the studies he’s conducting. Lancaster repeatedly asks him the same questions over and over. The stated goal is to “bring man back to his inherent state of perfect.” But how are these exercises supposed to accomplish this? It’s never quite clear or explained. The same question is put forth over and over to Quell in repetition. Don’t blink or we’ll start again at the beginning he instructs. Ok, But what’s the point? The exercises are a tedious chore for the audience. Sound boring? How about watching Joaquin Phoenix fling himself from one side of a room to touch a wall and then fling himself back to touch a window. Over and over, back and forth. How does this elucidate our understanding of this group? These ambiguous scenes promise to have a payoff that will clarify their point. But this payoff never arrives.

In the end it’s not clear what the movie is trying to say. It’s weird for the sake of being weird. Pretentious and shallow, the script lazily presents scenes seemingly without focus. They wander directionless with no discernable point. One scene gave me hope. At a party as the leader is pontificating his views to onlookers, one man speaks up and questions his beliefs. He brings up the word cult. But Lancaster shouts back, well you’ve already made up your mind so no reason to explain. No, please explain! That could have been a fascinating discourse on the nature of cult vs. religion but the screenwriters shirk any responsibly to get deep and a perfect opportunity is wasted. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has acknowledged that his drama is inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology. Regardless of your opinions of that religion, even its detractors would at least have to admit that it has galvanized a gathering of dedicated followers with the promise of improving your life. That is not the case here. The leader isn’t very charismatic nor is he even outrageous or dangerous. He’s just some guy that has captured the interest of a small group, some of which follow him and others privately talk negatively about. It is never demonstrated why Freddie is so taken with his teachings. Without that basis, nothing holds together. If Anderson has accomplished anything, it’s that has he has shot a lushly photographed film in 65mm, highlighted by some beautifully composed scenes. The production design is admirable as well. It would make a nice coffee table book. The actors do their best to bring life to a directionless, meandering script, but ultimately The Master is just a bunch of pictures in search of a point.

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23 Responses to “The Master”

  1. Great and thorough review as always Mark. i feared this might be the case. I’ve seen so many films that have been overhyped but the only redeeming feature was the cinematography. Still I’ll probably check it out at the cinema, but I might read a few more reviews before deciding if this is more suited to leaving it to DVD.

    • Honestly the reviews have been mostly stellar, with a few notable critiques. I couldn’t possibly decide what might be enjoyed by any given person, but my review is pretty specific as to where the movie fails. You should definitely check it out for yourself. It is well acted and nicely photographed at least. I didn’t grasp how bad the film was until the very end.

  2. When I saw the previews. I was already doubting this movie. Now I know why. It was not good. I left the theater feeling cheated. I understand it’ll probably get nominations , but I guess people like these types of movies. Not me.

  3. This has actually been my favorite film of the year thus far though I understand it’s not for everyone. Nice review.

  4. As I mentioned on Facebook I want to see it again now that I know where it’s “going” to unlock its secrets; I feel there is something there I just can’t begin to tell you what. It definitely defied any expectations I did have. Except for my expectations about the acting and cinematography, which it did meet. Phoenix is amazing and Hoffman is charismatic as usual.

    • As I stated in my review, I found him surprisingly uncharismatic in this. I blame the script, however, as I agree with you that Philip Seymour Hoffman is a great actor.

  5. Darn. I was expecting a great movie. I got all excited about it, because everybody on the Internet made it seem like it was going to win Best Picture. After reading your review, it seems like this is an easy candidate for Best Cinematography, but nothing else. Now I’m not so sure how I would enjoy it. Very, very thorough review.

  6. the complaints you made about Lancaster Dodd are ones that I had about Daniel-Day Lewis’ character in “There Will Be Blood” but the performance was so spectacular that I overlooked it. If PT Anderson does it again, I’m not so sure I could forgive it again.

    • Granted, There Will Be Blood is not an easy movie to like either, but I did. I thought Daniel Day-Lewis was extremely charismatic in that – mesmerizing in fact. In contrast, I didn’t think Philip Seymour Hoffman generated the right charisma of a religious leader with lots of followers. I kept waiting for him to say something insightful.

  7. Wow. Wasn’t expecting this. I kinda want to see it even more now, if that makes sense.

  8. I feel the exact way about this film. The plot was messy, but it was as if they were trying to cover it up with the countless sex scenes and sexual references. The movie was repugnant and empty – The Master is a waste of anyone’s time.

    • The focus seemed to be the relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix’s characters but their dialogue was just boring. Asking “What is your name?” 5 times in a row is mind numbing. Although to your point, I don’t think I’ll ever view Amy Adams quite the same after what she does in this film.

  9. I’m sure this will be on my top ten favorites list at the end of the year. I loved it, but I have no problem respecting your opinion.

  10. It’s so frustrating when a film gives you the “who” and the “what” at the expense of the “why.” That last bit is often the single most interesting part of the story.

    • Personally I kept asking myself why was Freddie drawn to this man and his followers. Was it just because they happened to meet on that boat? Then the whole thing becomes arbitrary. He could’ve ran into an Amway salesman.

  11. You make some great points. Like you, I expected to like it, but it was torture to endure.

  12. I’ve tried to avoid seeing anything about this so hadn’t read your review until now. I saw it yesterday as it only just opened here, and I completely agree. It’s bascially got no story to it or any point whatsoever, the only thing it has going for it is the performances largely of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and that of Jaoquin Phoenix, but performances aren’t enough, it’s essentially a non-movie. My review is now up (http://wp.me/p1LZxf-Ug) and I think you’ll find our opinions on this movie very like minded.

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