The Master (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Master (2012)

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3After so many years of making films that seemed flush and alive with the chaotic possibilities of their universes, P.T. Anderson has embraced finality a tad with The Master.  The images and sounds seem to indicate otherwise, especially in the opening scenes of the ocean crashing in and out, and the soundtrack doubling around itself in twisting patterns of jazz.  His films usually start so calm and focused on a small string of events.  Here we watch Freddie Quell, a drunken, perverted, sailor (Joaquin Phoenix) pretend to have sex with a woman made of sand, brew alcohol in bombs, and waste away in an asylum before finally being let loose on the world.

This is the kind of character that could go just about anywhere, do anything, and instead settles into a relationship with an enigmatic man who seems his direct opposite.  Lancaster Dodd, The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), takes pity on him and welcomes the drunken stowaway onto his boat.  Yet there’s more than just pity, masochism fuels a bit of Lancaster’s desire to keep the man around as he is the antithesis of the kind of person responsive to The Cause, a religion based on hypnosis and past lives.  Freddie just has the added bonus of makes a poisonously effective batch of brew in the meantime to fuel Lancaster’s deluded writings.

These two men, almost right off, are set in a clear line of conflict and friendship.  There’s little difficulty in deciphering that Freddie has long abandoned the ability to relate to things metaphorically, assuming that he had the ability to begin with.  Then there’s the matter of Lancaster, who has been lying about himself and his Cause for so long that he has completely bought into his own lies.  This is a different kind of conflict for Anderson, one born out of reluctant mutual admiration and trust, and one that establishes the following two hours played like a magician dragging out a trick I already knew the answer to.   Of all the things I expected to feel walking out of The Master, bored was not one of them.

Hoffman is brilliant, as always, and disrupts the rigorously composed structure of the film in a couple of illuminating moments.

Yet, bored I was exiting the theater.  The Master, after the table-setting first half hour, did not work for me at all.  There wasn’t the same sense of growth and expectation that I feel watching Anderson’s films.  Instead these two strong, in their own way, individuals are locked in a conflict whose resolution repeats itself multiple times over studious tracking shots, emotional speeches, and tight close-ups of faces who are challenged not to blink.  There is a cycle, and one that plays with its own formula so little you can feel the outcome coming before watching it.

The film is set up as a display of polarized duality, physically and mentally.  Freddie is completely incapable of experiencing things beyond their physical reality while Lancaster has to rely fully on his ability to get people to believe otherwise.  There’s a scene where Lancaster is putting on an impromptu song and dance routine and when the film switches over to Freddie’s perspective all of the women are naked.  For Lancaster, these people are possible converts, for Freddie just another opportunity to get laid.  At one point Lancaster is arrested for betraying people ideologically, Freddie for assaulting someone physically.  On and on these scenes go until finally Lancaster drives to a faraway point in the desert then comes back to encourage Freddie to do the same.  As far as existential symbols are concerned, I’m surprised Anderson would use one as notoriously blunt as this.

The rhythm is so repetitious it becomes dull, and the opposite natures of Freddie and Lancaster so deliberately laid out that there is little interest in attempting interpretation.  This wouldn’t be so bad if the scenes themselves didn’t embrace the exact same kind of pseudo-psychology time and time again.  When Anderson goes for the scenes of real tactile impact the film generates some strong interest, such as when Lancaster is trying to get Freddie to imagine a wall and a window as anything but their physical reality.  But quickly the conversation shifts back to matters of the mind, more close-ups and endless conversations follow, and I had to fight to avoid tuning out.

Despite the repetition of their struggle, Hoffman and Phoenix both wring every ounce of tension they can through their respective performing lenses. After this intense scene wrapped it almost looked like Phoenix dislocated his shoulder.

My issues with the structure and content of the film aside, there is still power in certain moments between Hoffman and Phoenix because of their performances.  Phoenix plays Freddie like a violent, if noble, fool with PTSD, and those moments he is forcing himself to try and feel something beyond the tactile in intense conversation are great.  Hoffman is excellent as always, portraying Lancaster, especially in those audio recordings, as an Orson Welles wannabe who understands the mythic draw of a powerful personality but had little of the talent to do anything else.

Anderson and new cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. do a great job setting up a just hostile enough view of the ‘50s.  I loved the crisp beams of sunlight cut through the too dark homes where members of The Cause reside while fans swirl purposelessly in the background.  Johnny Greenwood, however, does not capture the same excellence in his score for this as he did in There Will Be Blood.  After the fifth or sixth new-ish composition that featured clock sounds and parlor strings I was too inundated with the pattern to drum up any new interest.

The final disappointment is just how easy it is to ascribe meaning to all this without it being entertaining or involving.  You could plug any religion in for The Cause, all it needs to do in the story is function as the misfit of the other established cults.  The Freddie’s of the world will go on and keep finding their philosophical others just as the Lancaster’s will be masochistically drawn to do the same.  But in the future, as they both acknowledge, it will end.  What’s the point of a religious movement if you’re willing to acknowledge the ultimate finality?  Freddie is the answer, he just can’t articulate it.  Lancaster has the answer, he just dares not speak it.

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The Master (2012)

Written and directed by P. T. Anderson.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Great review (of an OK movie). The acting was superb, but the pacing was indeed rather flat. I too, zoned out a couple of times during “The Master”!

    • Thanks for commenting Daniel! This is what, I hope, will be a rare misfire in PT’s canon though there’s still plenty of room for great conversation about the film.

  2. I think that if you watched this movie again, you might see more of an interesting character study. This movie stayed with me long after I left the theatre. I loved your observation that ” Freddie is the answer, but he can’t articulate it. Dodd knows the answer, but he just dares not speak it”. WOW. It would be great to hear your assessment of some of the metaphores and insight this film has to offer.

    • Thank you very much for the comment Laura. I wish that the film stayed with me as much as it did others, but (as you can see) there’s still a lot I loved to talk about. P.T. Anderson is still my favorite living director so I’ll definitely be revisiting it in the future.

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