Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Master


The Master is and will be the most difficult film to discuss this year. And I mean that on a number of levels. Since first seeing it a week and a half ago, I’ve been asked consistently: A.) What it’s about, and B.) If I liked it. Two questions that are difficult to answer for different reasons. I’ve given the film a second go recently and having let it stewed accordingly, I can confidently assert that The Master is a fine film. A damn fine film, actually.  That takes care of part B. As for A: hell if I know.

From what most anyone can gather, Freddie Quell is in rough shape. A helpless alcoholic that we rarely see drink actual alcohol (he prefers whatever shit he can concoct from under the sink, around the medicine cabinet, or from the engine of an aircraft carrier), we meet Freddie (a perfect Joaquin Phoenix) right as he’s being discharged from World War II. What we see of him in the war is brief, but it’s clearly had an effect on him. Or has it? How long has Freddie been a violent, meandering drunk? How long has his sole mission been to attain a buzz and screw whoever is in front of him?

I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but so does the film, in a good way. Point in fact, The Master is writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson at his most Malickian. The film plays like The Tree of Life mixed with the fuck-it-all furor of the best of ‘60s European cinema. The narrative changes from character to character. Time, as it relates to chronology, is ignored. Dreams are presented as reality, and reality as dreams. In short, The Master is a rather ingenious exploration into the mind of a man who is insane.
To get back on plot track (because, really, I could describe how the movie is at far greater length than what the movie is), one night, Freddie stumbles onto a small, docked yacht and wakes up in the midst of The Master. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, as good as he’s ever been) wants to help Freddie. He wants to show him the path. He wants to show him The Cause.

The Cause is the religious and philosophical movement that Dodd has created. (Much as been made about the fact that The Master is based on L. Ron Hubbard, the man who pioneered Scientology. That seems fair, but is something I cannot accurately comment on, as I care to know next to nothing about that particular religion.) Through The Cause, Dodd is steadily looking for followers to guide on the path to peace, and Freddie is an impressionable, lost soul – the perfect kind of man for Dodd to scrutinize.

Interestingly, most outsiders to The Cause agree that Dodd is making his practices up as he goes along. Even his son, Val (played expertly by Jesse Plemons, who, both in look and conviction, was clearly born to play Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son) considers Dodd a fraud. The few times Dodd is confronted about his practices, it results in a screaming match in which Dodd cleverly skirts around the questions at hand, causing some of the film’s most thrilling sequences.
Now, in reviews for movies as accomplished as The Master, I typically like to highlight a few standout scenes that may help drive people to the theater. That is futile here. I could mention the first time Dodd “processes” Freddie, and how Phoenix makes the practice of not blinking the most devastating thing I’ve seen in a movie this year. Or how Phoenix all but redefines manic-depressive rage when he and Dodd are thrown into separate jail cells. Or how Anderson perfectly synchs his film to Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange in a scene where we briefly, nakedly see the world through Freddie’s eyes. But if I start in on that, then this review will never end.

The Master isn’t for everyone. Some will love it, others will detest it. Fair enough. While this is easily the most convoluted film Anderson has made, he is a director that has never quite appealed to mass audiences. I consider Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and particularly There Will Be Blood, four of the best films made in the last 15 years. Fans of those films should appreciate the bold new step(s) Anderson is taking here, while others may be put off by its inventiveness.
A final thought before we close. I’ve seen every major role Joaquin Phoenix has ever played, and never, not once, has he been nearly as good as he is here. His Freddie is so wild and over the top, it would be very easy for Phoenix to play him that way. But here, the actor provides a restraint that is wholly mesmerizing. He’ll be around come Oscar time. As will Hoffman, an actor who, at this point, can do no wrong.

If you’re on the fence about seeing The Master, then see it for them (and Amy Adams, who plays Dodd’s wife better than she’s played any role so far in her career). That trio itself makes this movie, this strange, unique, puzzling movie, worth it. A-

36 comments:

  1. This is a great review. I look forward to seeing this, although I hope it doesn't feel the same as Tree of Life.

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    1. Thanks! Oh it isn't nearly as purposefully convoluted as The Tree of Life, but it does jump 'round back and forth. No formal narrative structure.

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  2. Great review Alex. This film may have not made the most perfect sense of what it said, but still kept me intrigued and interested into where it was going to go with itself and how. One of the best films of the year, but not Anderson's best. Then again, does anybody really know which one is?

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    1. Ha, great point. I'm pretty sure I will now and forever consider There Will Be Blood his masterpiece, but aren't Boogie and Magnolia (and, maybe, Punch-Drunk) masterful as well?

      The man has such a distinct, unique vision. Like him or not, he benefits American cinema.

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  3. Awesome review! I was totally enchanted by the strange world Anderson created. I'm surprised some people don't like this film, but nothing is for everyone. It's in the eye of the beholder.

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    1. Indeed it is! I can completely understand how this could be too opaque for some people. But damn, as the days progress, I find myself more and more entranced with its power.

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  4. Well, let me be honest. I hated this film. I don't feel like divulging into details right here, but this is PTA's worse movie, if one even wants to call it that. Powerful acting, especially by Joaquin Phoenix, but 'The Master' left me astronomically disappointed.

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    1. Hey man, fair enough. Like I said, some will love it, others will detest it. But the fact that you found Phoenix's acting to be powerful and worthy leads me to hope that it wasn't a complete waste of your time...

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  5. Right now, this film is my favorite film of 2012. It's truly unlike anything that is out there. I just wish I could see it on a 70mm screen.

    Amy Adams is right now on the list of best supporting actress. Her role is actually much darker than I realized and she is just brilliant.

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    1. Nice man, glad you dug this one as much as I did. It just sets in a dares not leave. I haven't gotten it out of my head since first seeing it. I did have the pleasure of seeing it in 70MM and it was fucking awesome.

      Adams didn't really impress me, until THAT scene. After that, I was like, "Holy shit, this woman is going all in."

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  6. Alex, I saw this movie a couple of days ago and while I was sitting there with my mouth hanging open, thinking, "huh?", one thing I knew for sure....you were going to give it a good review. It is so you. Not so much me. If the only point of the flim was to showcase the remarkable performances of these fine actors, then it was a great success. Otherwise, it was indeed pointless.

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    1. Hey there! You know, it's funny, while I watched the movie, I had a very similar reaction that you did. But then I realized something, I was sitting there wanting the hipness of Boogie Nights, the poetic beauty of Magnolia and the epic ferociousness of There Will Be Blood. Once I settled in and realized The Master was so completely different from anything PTA has done, I liked it more. When I saw it a second time, I was hooked.

      But yeah, definitely not for everyone. Does The Tree of Life have a point? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or Cinderella? Hell if I know, I just like watching 'em!

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    2. You're right of course...I guess I was just looking for more. I do love to read your point of view.

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  7. Great review. I'd give the film the same rating, but my A- is more like a B+ compared to yours.

    Though I loved Phoenix's and Hoffman's performances, I was disappointed with Adams's performance. Maybe I missed something. There just didn't seem to be much for her to do in the film, despite THAT scene. She's fine, but I don't see anything awardworthy in her performance. Oh well. I'll be rooting for the guys come Oscar time.

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    1. Thanks man! Yeah, I'm not sure Adams' role will garner serious awards attention either, but I definitely like how underplayed she played it. Going over to read your review now.

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  8. Great review Alex, yeah I had some issues doing the writeup for wahtculture!.com. But at the same time it was easy because this movie made me feel something. That's what most critics do not get, don't tell me what you saw, I'll be seeing the same things, tell me what you felt. If the piece did move you in some way shape or form. I felt serious concern for Freddie, in both his struggles with his inner demons and the outer battle with Dodd. A perfect companion piece to There Will Be Blood, where we root against the main character and his endeavors. Needless to say I'm glad that the Master was my first review for the site.

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    1. Thanks Jeff! I read your review a few days ago and loved that we were mostly on point with one another here. (FYI, I read most everything you post on your site, but I don't comment because I don't want to be linked to facebook!)

      You're so right: Don't tell me what you saw, tell me what you felt. That's definitely what I was going for with my review. That's for reading/commenting man! Congrats on the wahtculture! gig!

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    2. Alex, thank you so much for reading. Hey, you can email me anytime you want to comment, if you're worried about anonymity (jeff_stewart@cityuponahillmedia.com). I would love to read your thoughts on my opinions. Keep up the good work.

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    3. Ok cool, good to know! Oh I'm not worried about anonymity, I just don't want my FB wall (or home page, or timeline, or whatever the hell it is now) to be blown up with blog comments or anything. Know what I mean?

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  9. Great review! I can't wait to see this one - sounds like the movie I'll or hate, either way I'll have a lot to write about for sure.

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    1. Thanks! Yeah, I think it is a very polarizing film indeed. Can't wait to read your thoughts!

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  10. Great review Alex. I've decided I'll just rent this film as there might be some scenes too uncomfortable for me to watch on the big screen. I seriously don't know if I'll love or hate this one, but I'm super curious about it, and that's saying something.

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    1. Ohh I'll be curious to hear what you think. I loved it, but others clearly hate it. To each his (or her) own!

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  11. When I was a substance abuse counselor, I had a court-ordered family who was devoted to the L. Ron Hubbard philosophy. They were convinced therapists were not to be trusted, and IF their son had a problem, Hubbard's ideas would be the way to go. It didn't work out very well for them.

    Terrific review, Alex; you're always exceptionally thought provoking and funny as well as an outstanding film critic. I have really been looking forward to this film. You have me even more intrigued. "writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson at his most Malickian. The film plays like The Tree of Life mixed with the fuck-it-all furor of the best of ‘60s European cinema." Excellent!! :)

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    1. I had no idea you were a substance abuse counselor, that is really very interesting to me. I'd be very curious to know what happened to that family, and their son. But I'm sure you can't divulge further. And not to go off here, but it is shit like that (the belief that, through Scientology, a substance abuse will be corrected) that really terrifies me. There was an episode of Nip/Tuck (a silly show, I know, but stick with me), in which a girl got very very injured, but her mom wouldn't let her be medically treated, because she believed Scientology was going to fix everything. So the doctors had to legally intervine and medicate the girl, or else she was going to die. It's all very interesting (and scary) to me.

      ANYWAY.

      Thank you so much for such a kind comment. It means the world to me that you enjoy reading this site, and "get" my style on top of it all. I've always tried to have fun with words, both verbally and in written form. My friends and family say I write exactly how I talk, which I always take as a compliment! But really, Stephanie, thank you. I'll be really curious to hear your thoughts about The Master when you see it!

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  12. I'm generally not big on Malick so i can't say "malickian" encourges me to go see this, but i will give it a shot.

    Also, have you seen Doubt?Cause i have a hard time believing Amy's performance in this tops her role in Doubt

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    1. Hmm, well, if you're not a fan of Malick, that certainly doesn't work in your favor here. But who knows... it is different to say the least.

      Funny you mention Adams' work in Doubt. I have seen it, and I did like what she did there, but I was surprised that she got nominated for an Oscar. It didn't really impress me on that level. But even after saying all of this, her work in The Master very closely mirrors her work in Doubt. So I think you'll dig her.

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  13. I am working on mine right now and from what I have written by now, looks like we concur. Even I went instantly to Tree of Life, there are so many similarities there.

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    1. Nice man, can't wait for your review. I loved the free-moving style of this one.

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  14. Seems difficult to digest? It seems promising. I'm gonna give it a go. Thanks for sharing your review!

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    1. I hope you enjoy it! Difficult to digest is fair... but I really dug it.

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  15. Great review Alex, I am crazy excited to see it, I love Paul Thomas Anderson, although I got a little bit taken aback by the Malickian comment, let's hope it's not too much!Thanks!

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    1. Thanks! Ohh if you like PTA but are not a fan of Malick, I'm not so sure you'd fully dig this one. It's very very Malickian (and Kubrickian).

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  16. As always a fine review from you Alex. I finally saw this today and went in cold (Scientology aside) so coming to read everybody elses opinions afterwards is almost like sitting with my friends and discussing it. Except IRL my friends would never watch this.

    That aside, The Master lacked something for me, as far as I've been able to pinpoint it's the lack of connection with any of the characters. I just didn't find myself understanding any of them or their raison d'etre. I didn't want to like them or anything that ridiculous I just felt like I needed an insight in to how they tick and that wasn't there as far as I could tell.

    I'm all for starting and ending a film without obvious narrative points, what has been called "slice of life" in its most simplistic shorthand but the distinct lack of (as Film Forager says) SOMETHING left me cold. Granted after the incomparable There Will Be Blood I was looking around each scene for bowling pins, I felt like I deserved a pay off in some way and that naked British girl wasn't what I had in mind.

    Technically this was wonderful and as you say there wasn't a performance below incredible in the entire thing. I couldn't help thinking of Sling Blade whenever Pheonix was onscreen, him look like an emaciated serial killer probably didn't help. As you say, his best performance by a country mile.

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    1. Hey man, glad you finally got to see this one. Honestly, I completely understand all of your discrepancies with the film. I think there are many many people who are of your school of though - not having or seeing any connection with any of the characters. And that's fair. It was a very visceral experience for me, one that I wasn't sure if I liked until about a week after I saw the film.

      So, yeah, it's certainly no TWBB, but Phoenix and Hoffman (and even Adams) were all outstanding. Love the Slide Blade comparison by the way, that's so fitting.

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