The Master: Masterful Execution, Sub-par Story

Film: The Master (2012)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar

Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Music by: Jonny Greenwood

Running Time: 137 minutes

Rating: R

To this point, few films this year have had as much hype as The Master. The latest installment from American film auteur Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, Boogie Nights), The Master sees Joaquin Phoenix emphatically reminding us that he is still a world-class actor after that bizarre rap artist hoax. We also see Philip Seymour Hoffman turn in another memorable performance as the eponymous “master,” and Anderson at technically-proficient best.

Unfortunately, while The Master succeeds in acting, direction, cinematography, music, and overall technique, it falls short in terms of a captivating story. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an unstable, violent, alcoholic drifter whose condition is made worse by him having  just returned from World War II. He stumbles upon a yacht one night in drunken pursuit of women, but he instead meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the leader (or “master”) of a faith-based organization (or, to put more simply, a cult) known as “The Cause.”

Broken and without much direction in his life, Freddie is a perfect guinea pig for Dodd. Dodd subjects Freddie to mental exercises not altogether dissimilar from hypnosis (although Dodd vehemently denies claims that his techniques fall under this category), promising to “wake him up” and help him break away from the things that are plaguing him. Freddie is often humiliated in front of the other fanatical members of “The Cause,” but his mental weakness renders him incapable of leaving Dodd and the organization for quite some time.

Hoffman is the perfect actor for Lancaster Dodd, as we see an omnipresent confidence and charisma in spite of the absurdity of his claims and belief system. We also even wonder how many of Dodd’s followers truly, 100% believe in everything he espouses. His son, Val (Jesse Plemons, who Breaking Bad fans will surely recognize if they’re completely up-to-date on the series) even tells Freddie that he is making up everything as he goes — but it is clear that Val and perhaps others are too invested and/or afraid to do anything about it.

Amy Adams gives The Master its other terrific acting performance, eschewing her oft-seen likeable, sweet-girl persona for Dodd’s more cold and rigid wife. She is also involved in the film’s most subtly creepy scene that, for me, brought back flashes of Black Swan. You’ll know what I mean if you have seen or will see the film.

The Master is also a beautifully-shot film, filled with vivid imagery and numerous noticeably unique camera angles. As I said earlier, it is indeed a masterpiece from a technical standpoint. But I felt like it had problems with the story. And yes, now we can get to that.

After the film’s conclusion I was left wondering what I was supposed to get out of it. Now, I’m often a big fan of intentional ambiguity, so long as the remainder of the story is captivating enough and I have enough investment in the characters. As terrific as the performances of Phoenix and Hoffman were, the story structure did not really make me care enough about their fates. Freddie is a rage-filled drunk who stumbles upon a fanatical cult, can’t break away from it for a while, then finally does, having not really undergone a profound change. What are we supposed to take from this? Cults are bad and ultimately unhelpful if not harmful? Okay. A man as broken as Freddie can never quite fix what ails him? Okay, whatever.

To be sure, The Master is a highly intellectual film, but I had trouble gleaning much else from it than this. As an avid fan of pure cinema, I enjoyed its technical precision and excellent performances — I think both Phoenix and Hoffman should be up for Oscars. But as someone who was looking for a story to affect me emotionally and really get my mind racing, I was left underwhelmed and without much feeling of resolution. I welcome comments that can offer more meaningful interpretations of the film, but I really see The Master as a mediocre story that comes close to — but doesn’t quite — transcending that weakness through how well-made it is.

Tommy D’s Score:





2.5/4 Tommy Ds

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About Tommy D

Clemson and UGA alum with a market research job in LA. And I kind of like movies.

Posted on September 23, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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