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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > The Master

MOVIE REVIEWS

THE MASTER (2012)

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Rami Malek, Amy Ferguson, Kevin J. O'Connor, Patty McCormack, Barlow Jacobs, Jillian Bell, W. Earl Brown, Fiona Dourif, Lena Endre and Jennifer Neala Page.

Screenplay by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Distributed by The Weinstein Company.  137 minutes.  Rated R.

 

Everyday Beautiful

 

The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson is such an obviously talented filmmaker and an impressive visual artist that it is easy to lose track of the fact that he seems to be losing his way as a storyteller.  The Master is visually stunning, features some spectacular Oscar-worthy acting and takes on some fascinating issues, but it feels strangely empty and detached.  We never quite know what Anderson thinks of these people, what the film thinks of some of the horrific events on screen, even what it believes about the broader concept that it presents on religious cults.  It's a completely dispassionate, po-faced recitation of facts, but makes no connection to the important ideas it espouses.

Truth is, the last time the Anderson made a completely satisfying film, at least from a narrative perspective, was a long fifteen years ago with Boogie Nights.  That movie was able to juggle very deep, subversive ideas with narrative coherence.  Granted, since then, Anderson has only made four films, but with each film the plot seems to be spinning further and further out of control of its creator.  The breaking point was probably in the follow-up film Magnolia, which was an extraordinary film until Anderson decided to submit his characters to a highly biblical ending which you either bought into as a brilliant piece of social observation or wrote off as a piece of heavy-handed symbolism.  Personally, I thought it was an interesting idea in theory that looked rather silly in practice... a bold idea that ended up not working.

Still, the audacity and fearlessness of a man who would literally rain frogs on his characters gave audiences a peek into a mind of a storyteller that would never be predictable or staid.  Anderson has lived up to that – despite the fact that Punch-Drunk Love and the way-overrated There Will Be Blood were the type of movies that were much easier to respect than to actually enjoy, they each made bold and unique visual and narrative choices.

However, oddly, as Anderson's movies moved into increasingly wild and experimental directions, the sheer ambitiousness of the filmmaking ended up stifling the simple plot structures.  Anderson's movies have started to feel more and more like filmmaking as an academic dissertation.  They should come with footnotes.

This divide between the audience and the characters has become a chasm by The Master.

None of these people feel real – even though Philip Seymour Hoffman's title character is supposedly based on sci-fi writer turned Scientologist founder L. Ron Hubbard.  They feel more like types.  Or more to the point, they feel like archetypes.

Probably the biggest problem with The Master – and it has many of them – is the simple fact that the movie's two main characters (three, if you count Amy Adams as the Master's constantly pregnant wife and partner in the Cause) are just so completely unlikable. 

Particularly Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a sex-crazed alcoholic former soldier who we first meet masturbating on a crowded beach to a sand sculpture of a naked woman.  He also is such an out-of-control alcoholic that at different points he is seen drinking cocktails made of airplane fuel, paint thinner and pharmaceuticals.  Freddie is a vile, slimy, violent, perverted, aggressive, self-centered and stupid man.  Which, in itself is not necessarily a bad thing to explore in a movie, but nothing interesting is done to make Quell's perversions intriguing and eventually his personality curdles onscreen like bad milk.  Phoenix does a fascinating acting job here, he literally looks stilted, sickly and decades older than he really is – but it is a spectacular job of acting to create a completely off-putting asshole.

Philip Seymour Hoffman's Master is also an asshole, a pompous blow-hard and a con man, but at least his character is allowed some lighter shades and a more recognizable humanity.  Hoffman's acting is even more exceptional than Phoenix's, but since the Master is such an enigma, the whole performance seems like a very showy but eventually mostly empty acting showcase.

We never completely figure out why Quell and the Master become so intertwined.  Quell does not appear to particularly believe in the Cause and the Master obviously often feels superior to his out-of-control protégé.  Sometimes it seems like it comes down to the idea of id versus superego, which sounds like a pretentious and dull hook to hang the film plot from.  The Master turns out to sadly live up to that high-minded tedium way too often.

Also, oddly, for a film that strives to make a commentary on religious cults, very little concrete is shown of the Cause.  The movie skims over this important aspect like a stone across the Dead Sea.

Yet, for all of the malicious people, plot failings and the slow-moving sections (two hours and seventeen minutes go by at a funereal crawl), The Master is so technically... well, masterful... that you want to cut it a little slack.  When you get to the end, though, as the plot just sort of peters out with no one any different than they were at the beginning of the story, you come to realize that Anderson really had nothing particularly profound – or even shallow, for that matter – to say with The Master.  It is a piece of mental masturbation and hollow rhetoric, but you have to acknowledge that it is delivered with great style.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: February 11, 2013.

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