Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master opens to the soft, whispering sounds of the sea followed by an image of swirling foam eddies stirred up behind a ship on the turquoise ocean. It’s a motif Anderson returns to again and again throughout the film and it bespeaks turmoil and rudderless wandering. A sailor on that ship, Freddie Quell, is adrift in the eddies of history trailing behind the cataclysm of World War II. Lonely, self-loathing and pumped up by violence and lust, Freddie is in a holding pattern with only the simulacra of fighting or love making – wrestling matches on the beach or inert sex objects sculpted from sand – to occupy him. He’s about to return to a society that was kept, for the most part, safely away from the horrors of war; a society wanting to move forward, no longer needful of the job for which Freddie has been trained. Impatient, restless and prone to fits of temper, he is driven almost completely by the temptations of sex and booze. Refusing or unable to be pinned down, he says what he wants and goes where he wants.

Before long, the directionless Freddie is pulled into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-like leader of a new religion called “The Cause.” Controlled, careful and analytical, Dodd is the cool counterpoint to Freddie’s fire. At the same time, he shares Freddie’s temper and his predilection for booze and the two form a strange bond. Simultaneously pulled together and driven apart by their volatile personalities, they seem to understand each other in ways no one else does and each fulfills some need in the other. Freddie finds acceptance and community while Dodd finds a test case for his theories of personality and an outlet for his darker drives.

Referred to throughout pre-production as “Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology film,” The Master is less about any specific religious movement and more about a relationship between two men, their search for deeper meaning and how that reflects the psychological environment of America in the 1950s when a number of cults promised anchors for the aimless. Less driven by plot than Anderson’s previous films, this is really a character piece. Like its lead, it feels a little unstructured and directionless at times (probably by design), but because of the seething, titanic performances at its core, you can’t help following it from start to finish whether you know where it’s going or not.

Love or hate Anderson’s individual films, there’s no denying he’s gotten great performances out of his actors throughout his career, from John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight, to Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore and William H. Macy in Magnolia, to Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and perhaps most memorably to Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be Blood. These are career best pieces of work by great actors, yet Joaquin Phoenix may have outdone them all.

This is one of those rare performances where an actor is so thoroughly transformed that you forget you’re watching an act. Anderson relentlessly probes Freddi, examining him like a bug under a glass. His camera moves in close, studying the lined face, the eyes flickering with a blunt, inarticulate animal rage. Half his face frozen by some kind of palsy, limping with a scoliotic stoop and his spindly arms swinging ineffectually at his side, Phoenix the actor is almost unrecognizable. It’s the kind of physical performance that can come across affected or showy or calculated, but the actor pulls it off the same way he did in the wildly underappreciated faux documentary I’m Still Here which left audiences unsure whether they were seeing a character or the real man.

As Lancaster Dodd meanwhile, Philip Seymour Hoffman has a greater challenge in a way because of the character’s natural reserve and veneer of dignity. He’s less prone to fly off in an attention grabbing rage, but the performance is a marvel of subtlety. Hoffman dispenses with most of his familiar tics and builds Dodd from the ground up. Like Phoenix, he disappears into the role, infusing Dodd with a deep humanity. This is no huckster or con artist. He revels in the spotlight as the leader of the flock, but he really believes what he’s doing.

If there’s an issue about the film for me, it’s that it didn’t hit me in the gut quite the way Anderson’s other films have. I didn’t form as strong an emotional connection with it, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a fault of the filmmaking. This is a ballsy, confident and compelling film. Anderson has the intelligence and self-assuredness at this point in his career to let it be subtle and a little bit inscrutable. He’s comfortable sitting back and just riding the marvelous performances of his lead actors. The Master is a film that contains those performances without ever smothering them.

20 Responses to “The Master (2012)”

  1. Looking forward to this a lot, but I guess I’ll be able to see this on the big screen once it gets Oscars nominations (or after the Oscars air on tv).

  2. Wow, that is a terrific piece of writing Craig. A sure barometer of a film’s power is when it brings out the best in you as a film reviewer. The sure handed (and lyrical) crafting of this review showcases the erudite analysis. Like Rodrigo, I’m really looking forward to the film and your review sure has whet my appetite.

  3. I agree with sartre that this is a particularly well-written piece, beginning with the imagery of the opening paragraph. I know, Craig, that you and I both liked Phoenix in I’m Still Here and so I’m anxious as hell to see him here. The snippet I saw on David Letterman – with Amy Adams – told me nothing except that her character didn’t seem very interesting (though what can you tell from a brief clip). When do you plan to see it a 2nd time? I’d love to hear your follow-up reactions.

  4. “f there’s an issue about the film for me, it’s that it didn’t hit me in the gut quite the way Anderson’s other films have. I didn’t form as strong an emotional connection with it, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a fault of the filmmaking.”

    Yep this was precisely the issue that Ihad with the film, though as Craig notes in one of his best-written reviews it is often arresting. Your sensory first paragraph is a stunner for sure. The film is sometimes epectacular, but it’s also incomprehensible and cryptic. n There re some people out there who will adrress this film as the work of a master who never steps wrong. The film well deserves repeat viewings, and it’s difficult to shake but Ican’t deny it’s problematic.

    3.5 for me.

    For me the superstars are:

    Joaquin Phoenix
    Phillip Seymour Hoffmann
    JohnnyGreenwood

  5. Rodrigo, you’ll definitely want to catch this one on as big of a screen as you can find when you get the chance. It’s worth it.

    Thank you Sartre, I do find myself trying to step up to the plate when it comes to movies of this quality. Not sure I hit a home run this time out, but I think I got some good swings in.

    Pierre, if you fell for Phoenix in I’m Still Here as I did, I have to think his performance here will be a slam dunk for you. I can’t wait to hear what you think though. I always enjoy your actors perspective on what I consider great performances and this is definitely one of them. I shorted PSH a little bit I’m afraid, but he’s also really very good. Amy Adams is actually really very good. Her character is the opposite of flashy so she kind of blends in, but she’s a pivotal character between JP and PSH… sort of the Shakespearean power behind the throne. I regret not bringing her up in the review, but I wasn’t quite sure what to say about her. I’ll focus on her more in subsequent viewings.

    Sam I think we’re pretty much on the same page, even if I ultimately rate the film a little higher. I didn’t so much find it incomprehensible, but barring a deep emotional connection the first time through, I wasn’t quite sure what to take away from it in a bigger sense. It was entertaining and the performances were stunning (an over-used word, but one that fits Phoenix here) though and I really think it’s a film that will live or die in repeat viewings. I spent so much time just in awe of the images and of the performances, that I wasn’t sure always what I should be focusing on and I missed a lot. This is difficult because it’s not a plot-dependent movie. It’s very much a character study.

  6. This movie hit me DIRECTLY in the emotional center. Part of it, admitedly, or maybe most of it, is personal, as I’ve been going through some shit and found the film’s obstinate despair and isolation to be quite relatable. As I told a friend, a picture hasn’t affected me quite like this since “Mulholland Drive”.

  7. This is well worth purchasing, methinks:

    http://www.amazon.com/Master-Original-Motion-Picture-Soundtrack/dp/B008V0OKGG/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1347901775&sr=1-1&keywords=the+master

    I’ll be placing my own order today.

  8. Sorry to hear that you’re going through a tough patch, Chuck. During challenging times I’ve turned to more personally relatable cinema, among other things, as a powerful yet welcome means of opening the door on and releasing vulnerable emotions.

    Thanks for the soundtrack link, Sam.

  9. Good review, although I have to say I found the Freddie character beyond redemption. Society hasn’t left him behind, he has left society behind. It’s fun to watch Phoenix but I found no depth in his character at all. There are no scenes that show him being anything other than a disturbed, screwed up and angry character, which leads me to believe he was born that way. One would think that would make you empathize with him more – but instead I just kept thinking why doesn’t someone give this guy medication. [And, I know, it was 1950 so the only option was, most likely, something much more drastic like the Cuckoo’s Nest treatment].

  10. Sam I love that the soundtrack also includes the popular hits in addition to Greenwood’s score. They’re a perfect mix.

    I think Chuck that’s a key different to our reactions… mine respectful but yours more passionate… that personal connection which I didn’t feel. Maybe 10 years ago when I was more restless and angry it would’ve had a stronger impact. I was just saying to Sam in the Lost in Translation thread that there is a movie where my personal connection to it trumps whatever else I might have thought about it. In this case, I don’t think you can deny the craftsmanship of The Master or the confidence of the filmmaking or the power of the performances .

    MDL, Freddie certainly wasn’t a likable guy or necessarily sympathetic. I definitely wondered if he went into the war already broken and the war just magnified it or if it was the war itself that damaged him. I suspect the former in which case he’s even harder to take.

    Having said that, I think he represents an aspect of a lot of people’s personalities. A restlessness and a rage and a feeling of being lost and not fitting in.

  11. I am not really sure what to make of the whole, but the performances and the individual scenes are amazing. Although his dialogue and scenes can outwardly feel heightened, even stilted at times, there is a naturalism to how he depicts people that seems to expose their deepest inner turmoil while his characters are doing their level best to cloak themselves from the world. Phoenix and Hoffman both give two of the best performances of their respective careers, and I liked the supporting work as well, but I’m still working out my feelings on the film as a whole. Regardless, this is one that should not be missed.

  12. It pains me a little to say it given the artistry on display throughout this film, but The Master left me cold and a little exasperated.

    For the first hour or so, I felt like I was on this film’s wavelength. The performances were impeccable. Phoenix perfectly captured that sense of restlessness and alienation. Hoffman felt a little more broad, but he made for a believably charismatic cult leader. Cinematography was among the best I’ve seen so far this year–crisp, clean imagery by turns epic and intimate. The costume and production design and even the casting (the extras in the photo studio were spot-on) helped create an immersive period feel.

    But as the film wore on, I got the sense that Anderson didn’t have a firm grasp of where he was going or what he wanted to say. His script dabbles in a lot of issues–the alienation of the soldier, father-son/mentor-protege relationships, addiction and control–but they don’t come together in any cohesive way. By the end, I was left wondering what the point was. It’s one thing for a filmmaker to leave questions unanswered, it’s another to offer up only questions and no context.

    I also felt that the film could have benefited from some judicious editing. After that bravura first hour, the film became a bit of a slog. There were several scenes explaining aspects of “The Cause” that didn’t add anything to my understanding of the characters. Despite its 2 hour 40 minute run-time, There Will Be Blood didn’t have a single wasted scene. When you’re in a film that expertly hewn, you don’t feel time. At a certain point — it’s hard to put my finger on exactly where — I felt like I was running out the clock with The Master, waiting for it to share its last arcane detail, its last beautifully framed image, its last inconclusive exchange of dialogue.

    This is certainly a worthwhile film, for the reasons I outlined above, but it feels like a failed experiment. It’s full of interesting ideas and feats of cinematic artistry, but it lacks any emotional core or narrative compass. Maybe it suffers in comparison with TWBB (which I revisited a few days prior). I’d be willing to give The Master another chance, though, since these are only my first impressions.

  13. If I might say so these are excellent responses from both Joel and W.J., that in varient aspects mirror my own opinion at this point. The first half to two-thirds of the film seemed brilliant, then it faltered. Pierre has expressed similar reservations. Phoenix in particular delivered one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve seen in years. But yes a second viewing is mandatory, and I’ll be negotiating that sometime mid-week.

  14. Joel, WJ, Sam, I think for the most part we’re on the same page here. I found Master compelling and I admired the filmmaking and the performances, but in the end I struggled to fit it to my own life, to see how it reflected me or had something to offer me. I know others were hit by it emotionally, but I just wasn’t. Punch Drunk Love really knocked me out, and there was a driving horror movie-esque vibe to There Will Be Blood that made it sing for me. This was more of a character piece between two characters I didn’t fully understand.

    I too plan to see it again and I look forward to figuring out if a 2nd viewing enhances the experience or reveals it to be empty.

  15. This is a terrific and concise review of a film that I found puzzling, curious, intriguing, at times nothing short of brilliant but ultimately far, far less than satisfying on nearly any level.

    I was shaken by the the actors, primarily the rather pathetic manner in which Hoffman’s Dodd was at times quite transparently and never-less-than-amusingly more drawn to Phoenix’s Quell to a greater and more pointed (and poignant) degree than Quell was to him. At least two of their scenes together, which almost serve as bookends to the relationship, are shockingly raw displays of thespian-fueled power, dynamically captured by Anderson.

    However, the film is obtuse and almost angrily uneven, as though Anderson was driven to use the tests and rituals depicted among the members of Dodd’s group as a literal, meta evaluation and test for the audience. I haven’t seen so many walkouts since perhaps District 9. I even joked to a friend upon the first obvious walkout, “There went a vehement Scientologist.”

    Yet within the parameters of analyzing and essaying “The Cause,” I found the film somewhat lukewarm and almost flaccid. This seems to be reflected in an interview or two in which Anderson, upon learning more about Scientology, says that he found to actually rather like many of the thoughts and beliefs at the movement’s core. I truthfully enjoy an ambivalent narrative that almost serves as a well-mounted exercise in frustration as frank and honest as anything in cinematic drama, but The Master falls short in corralling all of the points of interest it initially shows interest in pursuing.

    I find this paragraph by W.J. in particular very much like my reaction to the film as it progressed beyond its opening hour: “But as the film wore on, I got the sense that Anderson didn’t have a firm grasp of where he was going or what he wanted to say. His script dabbles in a lot of issues–the alienation of the soldier, father-son/mentor-protege relationships, addiction and control–but they don’t come together in any cohesive way. By the end, I was left wondering what the point was. It’s one thing for a filmmaker to leave questions unanswered, it’s another to offer up only questions and no context.”

    Indeed. Somehow, the film seemed to lose its way and by the time the film limps to the ninety-minute mark (I remember distinctly as I–very uncharacteristically–glanced at my watch thinking the film was nearing its closing chapter, realizing it still had 45 minutes to go), Anderson’s approach becomes less and less engaging, more purely repetitive and suffocating. Even this approach unto itself could have rendered something truly memorable, yet as Quell leaves one scene after one scene unchanged and ostensibly less interesting than he was earlier in the film, I found myself increasingly unsympathetic toward Anderson’s game plan.

    Moreover, there are simply too many sidebars that go nowhere. Hoffman is… well, masterful… in a few critical scenes, and even when he went with his trued-and-true approach to the bit of exasperation with Laura Dern’s character at that congressional assembly in Phoenix, the film momentarily won me back over, as I was intellectually piqued by the apparent pursuit of an unquestionably intriguing element to the Dodd character, but it was just as quickly blown past by Anderson’s almost painstakingly intimate approach, which was a fine way to capture the variegated emotions between the two central characters but little else, rendering that relationship’s vitality somewhat like a hollow shell to me, as there was truth and pain and melancholic agony that could not be expressed between them, but nothing of the whole postwar time period or the great, overwhelming sociopolitical realities that The Master almost laboriously (yet somewhat lovingly, and thus entertainingly) relates by covering in great depth in the first thirty or so minutes of the film as it follow Freddie as he attempts to reintegrate wtihin society, seem to matter, as the film loses all sight and sound, and therefore context. I don’t mind that the film becomes an aching chamber piece, but after opening with the scope of an epic, it seemed to create a very bumpy and difficult ride, as though Anderson’s reach far exceeded his grasp.

  16. It’s great to see you back penning such brilliance, Alexander. I’ll take the easy and economical way out and only say I can’t agree with you more!

  17. (Minor spoilers below)
    Hey Alexander, nice to see you round these parts. I’ve read elsewhere that Anderson has compared this project to a Terrence Mallick project, in that he began with a completed script and ended up cutting the film quite differently in the editing room once he realized the entire crux of the film is the relationship between Freddie and Dodd and everything else is secondary. Now foregoing the obvious difference between Mallick and Anderson’s styles and work here (I’d assume Anderson was not completely serious when making this reference), I’ve also heard that a version of the script follows the film quite closely and only leaves out more details about Freddie’s involvement in WWII. I have not read the script, so I can’t say, but one thing that really bothered me about The Master is how disinterested and almost dismissive Anderson’s film is to all his supporting characters other than Adams’ Peggy and the mysterious Doris. Typically Anderson gives all of his supporting cast at least a scene or moment that fleshes those characters out and exhibits each actor as an individual, but here many of the characters appear to be no more than extras. The are a few scenes that appear to go nowhere or have little significance, such as Dodd’s daughter propositioning Freddie. I can see the value in this loose ends but its atypical of Anderson to introduce threads and not resolve them (some might consider it a weakness that he does typically resolve his threads).

    It adds support to the idea that Anderson did indeed restructure this film heavily in editing, which might also explain the odd narrative structure of the film.

    In regards to the depiction of Scientology, I agree with the view that The Master isn’t actually about Scientology. In fact, I’d suggest that Anderson is using the time period and setting to evoke a much broader critique of pop religion and faith in general. Dodd, his persona, and his methods might closely reflect Scientology in general, but they could just as easily apply metaphorically to any variety of pastors, preachers, or erstwhile prophets that were popping up on TV, radio and in print during the 50’s.

  18. Joel, the info about the editing would certainly explain the disjointedness of Anderson’s film. I’m no expert at the craft, and few people are, but the editing seemed like the least impressive technical aspect of the film. The editing combined the worst of two different approaches to cutting a film. Some shots stretched on and on unnecessarily; other scenes were cut to a pace that seemed unnaturally staccato. That says nothing of the narrative disjointedness, which may very well have been how Anderson wrote the screenplay.

    I’ve had some time to think about this film, but my opinion hasn’t changed much. It’s certainly a good film — I’m still thinking and talking about — but it also still feels like a failed experiment. Hopefully this is a necessary growing pain on the way to another unalloyed masterpiece.

  19. W.J.: He talks about it in various interviews, but I still haven’t found very many specific quotes on the script vs shooting vs editing here, but I think your take is probably accurate. This WP interview gets into it a bit: http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/paul-thomas-anderson-on-the-master-and-going-big-for-the-wrong-reason/2012/09/21/b935805a-0345-11e2-9b24-ff730c7f6312_story_1.html

  20. Jim Emerson does a nice job of collecting a round-up of different perspectives on The Master. I think the most interesting thing here is not how many different ways there are to read the film (although the interpretations are interesting), but that the director himself admits that not everything is inherently intentional (in relation to the recurring shots of the ocean): “”Ha, ha! Those water shots are just nice. Sometimes you do things that you think are a good idea. Other times, you just hope that some feeling hits you when you’re putting the film together. You have to follow that. […]”

    (Anderson continues) “I’m not trying to be arty or elusive or anything. Where we come from in the editing room can sometimes be intellectual, but more often it’s pretty instinctual. More often, if you looked under the hood, you’d see how amazingly disorganized and confused we all were.”

    Even if they’re not strictly intentional in terms of theme/metaphor/character, they’re intentionally included and that has meaning. I should probably reiterate that for me certain scenes don’t have obvious closure but that doesn’t mean they don’t have value or meaning (such as the aforementioned scene with Dodd’s daughter propositioning Freddie).

    http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2012/10/the_master_what_does_it_all_me.html

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