REVIEW: ‘The Master’ (2012)

The Master Review (2012) Joaquin Phoenix, Paul Thomas Anderson

Grade: A

There is a scene in the latter half of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master, where the titular spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leads his new protégé Freddie Quell to the middle of the Arizona desert for a game he calls “drive to the point.” One person gets on the motorcycle, chooses a distant point on the horizon, and drives toward it at full speed. Dodd goes first, choosing an arbitrary point and turning around before he gets too far; never letting the motorcycle go fast enough to muss up his hair. Then it’s Freddie’s turn. When Freddie starts driving it is clear that his “point” is not random, and he drives with a fierce determination as if there is some secret truth waiting for him at his destination. Eventually Lancaster has to walk across the desert to catch up to him.

This gorgeously shot 10-minute scene manages to provide pages of character detail while simultaneously encapsulating one of the major themes of The Master, or “The Point” if you will. When faced with a search for meaning there are those of us who never fully engage out of vanity or fear and there are others who disregard safety and drive straight forward without a fleeting glance to the side. This film is about challenging the audience to identify with one of the two ideologies: when it comes to a search for truth, are we all talk, or are we willing to fully immerse ourselves in the madness required to find meaning?

The Master Review (2012) Joaquin Phoenix, Paul Thomas AndersonThe Master is all about finding meaning and Paul Thomas Anderson aids us in our search by making every beat seem significant. He likes to let the camera linger on his characters for a few moments longer than is comfortable, forcing us to peel back another layer into their psyche. Shot in 65mm (unfortunately in Minneapolis it’s only being screened in 35mm), Anderson and cinematographer Mahai Malaimare Jr. use fluid camera movements to gradually bring us closer to the people on screen as the score from Johnny Greenwood ticks along like a timer foreshadowing an impending explosion. That visual poetry combined with career-defining performances from Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams makes The Master an easy contender for best film of the year.

Anderson follows his intense character studies in Punch Drunk Love and There Will be Blood with a similarly structured narrative in The Master, with the addition of a second point of view character. The first we meet is the horny World War II Navy veteran Freddie Quell who has a hobby of creating moonshine out of various household liquids like paint thinner and gasoline. Freddie’s irrepressible sexual urges lead to an uncomfortable confrontation with a sand-sculpture that instantly isolates him from the rest of the Navy. When his ship returns to land, Freddie attempts to adapt to civilian life by working as a photographer at a department store. Once again his animalistic nature forces him off the job and sets him wandering in a drunken stupor across the country.

In a mishap that might be deemed fate, Freddie stumbles onto the vessel where spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd, referred to by his followers as “Master,” is holding the wedding for his daughter. Dodd’s affinity for Freddie’s alcoholic concoctions makes them quick friends and the relationship strengthens when Dodd sees opportunity to practice his methods on the occasionally unhinged seaman. Dodd is the founder of a religious organization referred to as “The Cause,” which appears to be a mix of Scientology (psychological disorders are the result of events in past lives) and the Meisner Technique (repetition leads to truth). Explaining the doctrine of The Cause is not Anderson’s purpose, however, as he is far more interested in the relationship between Master and Freddie.

The Master Review (2012) Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Thomas AndersonReferring to Freddie as his “guinea pig” and patronizingly calling him “naughty boy,” Dodd at first assumes a paternal role in Freddie’s life and before long, he introduces Freddie to guests before his own children. We learn through flashbacks that Freddie is still in love with a young girl who wrote him letters while he was enlisted. Dodd makes it one of his goals to “cure” Freddie of this obsession, which he believes is the source for much of his anger. Ultimately he succeeds in only transferring Freddie’s love from the girl onto himself, making for one of the most intriguing male love stories in recent cinema.

Sex makes a triumphant return to Anderson’s filmography after being left out (at least explicitly) of There Will be Blood. During a Rorschach test, Freddie only sees genitalia, and he pursues this single-minded sexual obsession by imagining all the women at a party naked or passing brilliantly subtle notes reading “Do you want to fuck?” Contrasting Freddie is Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) who treats sex as a chore – methodically instructing her husband to ejaculate during one encounter. Master is torn between the two and his own sexual frustration manifests in his excessive drinking and increasing affection towards Freddie.

Phoenix is triumphant and hardly recognizable in his first feature film since his faux-retirement a few years ago. He mumbles through his dialogue with his mouth twisted and his torso protruding like something is destroying him from the inside. His best moments come when he is saying nothing, like his first question and answer session with Dodd where Freddie squirms in his chair while the camera lingers on his agonized face. This is really Freddie’s story and Phoenix’s performance shows us that despite all of the analysis and character study that is explicitly taking place, we will never know who this man truly is.

The Master Review (2012) Joaquin Phoenix, Paul Thomas AndersonHoffman and Adams are similarly exquisite as two people who are putting on a show for the public. Like other cinematic figures of prominence (Charles Foster Kane comes to mind), Lancaster Dodd desires to be loved more than anything else and Hoffman nails the showmanship that the role requires. Peggy Dodd is much colder and Adams gives her an icy stare that is only slightly masked by her phony smile.

At one point Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons) accuses The Master of “making it up as he goes along,” and the film’s cinematography certainly backs up that statement. In several establishing shots the camera fluidly moves around each set with no clear destination, keeping the audience guessing where it will stop. The implication is that there is no correct side for the viewer to take in each of the film’s conflicts. It is up to us to determine if we will keep the truth at arm’s length, hiding behind prose and rhetoric like Dodd, or if we will dive in and completely immerse ourselves for better or for worse, like Freddie.

The Master is the type of film that begs for repeated viewings and will undoubtedly incite discussion beyond 2012. I cannot wait to discover it all over again when it returns to cinemas for 20, 30, and 40 year anniversary screenings in glorious 70 milimeters.

Bottom Line: The Master is a thoughtful meditation on truth that challenges the audience to take sides.

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  • I find it interesting that the phrase “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China” originally had no romantic meaning, but was said by winning gamblers to losing ones.

  • This is the most fun i had reading a review… that is the beauty and magic of Anderson. Now i can’t wait to watch it.

  • Luiz Angel

    In your first paragraph, you got it wrong.
    It wasn’t Peggy who went, its was Elizabeth, Lancaster’s daughter.

    Just wanted to point that out.

  • I too loved the film (unlike There Will Be Blood). But the scene you describe in the first paragraph occurs very near the end of the film, not in the middle, and I believe it is his daughter and her husband that are in the dessert with him, not his wife. Not that that changes anything you said about it.

    My only quibbles are that the son, Val, who doubts the ideology, is not really developed, nor is the resolution to the prison scene. I like this in part because emphasizes how religious people can get so caught up in their beliefs that they ignore the doubts and contradictions of their philosophy and accept things unquestionably. So it works thematically, and is supported by the cinematography (among other technical aspects of the film), as you mention. But this still seems like underutilized material than deliberate omissions.

    But that’s me. I’m still absolutely floored by the film in nearly every respect.

  • @Davin and @Luiz – Thank you for the correction. I have updated the main paragraph to make it correct.

    The more distance between myself and ‘The Master,’ the more I find I can’t stop thinking about it. There were so many layers to this movie and I still have a page of notes that never made it into the review.

  • I Finally got to see it. Overall it had a lot of good ideas. I’m not sure how many of those ideas are new ones, but the whole time it kept me interested. Given that I’ll be thinking about it for the next week means it’s a great movie, but I’ll probably have to see it a second time to really have a final opinion. The beginning was nearly perfect with the introduction to Phoenix’s chracter and some great moments visually, like the scene where he’s walking toward the ship at night. The second and third acts had some moments that felt awkward and out of place, but it’s about a cult, so I suppose that might’ve been intentional.

    Right now, when ranking Anderson’s films, I would place The Master behind Boogie Nights (his best in my opinion) and There Will Be Blood. But since There Will Be Blood and The Master are similar in so many ways, I might eventually find more interest in The Master when watching it again.

  • Eric M

    I had a highschool English teacher who oh-so-poetically said “So what?” when someone identified a theme or literary technique within a work. It was her way of challenging us to find a deeper-meaning within something, rather than simply identifying it. And that is where I struggle with The Master. I’m able to see the pieces at work, but once the credits came on screen, I just repeated my teacher’s mantra… So what?

    Do we want Freddie to be fully-accepted by The Cause – a group which we are never expected to sympathize with? Am I supposed to see it as tragic that Freddie so badly wants acceptance? Are any of the characters representative of something larger than themselves?

    I give PTA all the credit he deserves for the phenomenal directing, and the acting by Phoenix is Oscar worthy. But aside from a few scenes, the movie was a huge dud in my eyes (at least after one viewing). There Will Be Blood defines “the great American film” in so many ways to me, that perhaps anything would have been a letdown. D+, and I’m ready for the backlash from you PTA lovers out there!

    • If you interpret the film as a search for faith (as I did), that’s a pretty big “so what.” Many people would argue that it’s THE QUESTION that defines existence.

      • Eric M

        If you interpret the film that way, I’d like to know exactly which characters in the movie you’re identifying with. Freddie certainly isn’t searching for faith, and I disagree whole-heartedly that he even attempts to immerse himself in The Cause. The scene where he walks between the wall and window is an obvious instance of this. Not only is he reluctant to even do what is asked of him, but he verbally expresses to The Master how pointless he views the exercise to be; once the others go outside, he simply yells as if he is still following directions, when instead he is stationary. In fact, it is Freddie’s reluctance to immerse himself that results in Amy Adam’s character questioning Freddie’s purpose.

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