Review: The Master

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I don’t know when I’ve been more confounded watching a film as I was with Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. It’s a bit like the philosophy espoused by the title character: it sounds great in the abstract, but when you look at it closely it’s a bunch of hooey.

Anderson for me has been a hit-and-miss director. Loved Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, hated Punch-Drunk Love, was meh about Magnolia. This film is better than Punch-Drunk Love, but not by much. It’s a bore, it’s bewildering, and it has one of the most irritating performances I’ve seen ever seen.

The film begins on a South Seas island at the end of World War II. Sailors are cavorting on the beach, but one of them just doesn’t seem right. He’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and when the other men make a woman out of sand, he humps and finger-bangs it. Then he jerks off into the ocean.

The scene has a languid sensuality that reminded me of The Thin Red Line, and much of the film reminds me of Terence Malick–there’s a kind of cosmic significance to it, if one can figure out what the hell is going on. Phoenix ends up in VA hospital, and when he takes a Rorschach test he thinks all of the ink blots are genitalia. For some reason he is released, and gets a job as a department store photographer, but his rage is too much to hold a job. For this reason he also loses a job as a cabbage picker.

Serendipitously (or perhaps not) he is found destitute by the crew of a yacht being used by an author named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He has all sorts of titles and pronouncements, and takes a shine to Phoenix, for no discernible reason, except that he admires Phoenix’s talent as an amateur mixologist, making booze out of products like photo developing fluid and Lysol. Phoenix, completely unmoored, becomes part of the “Master’s” retinue, learning something called “the Cause,” which involves past-live regression and all sorts of other psychological quackery.

What we have here is what we had in There Will Be Blood–a facsimile of a father-son relationship. As Daniel Day-Lewis and his adopted son ultimately came to be disappointed with one another, so will the relationship in The Master curdle, but the reasons aren’t precisely clear. For much of the movie I couldn’t grasp the central core of the movie–what drew the two together? Sure, Phoenix needs a father and Hoffman needs a son (his own son, Jesse Plemons, thinks his father just makes everything up). But there’s no connection between the two. In fact, Amy Adams, playing Hoffman’s wife, speaks for the audience when she tries to get him to give up on Phoenix, as being too late to be helped.

The film looks great. The photography, by Mihai Malamaire Jr., is Oscar-worthy, with some stunning scenes of both sea and desert. The production design is terrific as well, giving the film an authentic post-war look. But I fidgeted the whole way through. There are too many random scenes of bizarreness, such as when Phoenix looks up on a party and visualizes all the women naked, of when Adams reads to him from a dirty book. Half the film is spent in a WTF mindset.

Hoffman, who plays against type here by being totally self-confident and in command, is excellent, though. The only scene I found compelling was when he asks Phoenix questions in what’s called “processing.” Hoffman’s control is absorbing, but later, he will lose his cool when others question his theories, such as at a dinner party when he reveals that the Earth has been around for trillions of years. By the way, past lives are bullshit, and here’s why–there are more people alive now than have ever died in the history of mankind, which means there’s not enough past lives to go around, let alone having eight or nine of them. If we were reincarnated, some of us come from lesser life forms, like grasshoppers or squirrels.

The film’s black hole is Phoenix, in one of the worst performances outside of an Ed Wood movie. It’s as if he were extending the performance art joke of his recent “retirement.” He walks with a slouch, talks through his teeth and out of the side of his mouth, and appears to be in a state of perpetual agitation. He’s supposed to be a short fuse–he will assault anyone who defies Hoffman– but I just couldn’t take it. There’s such a thing as good acting and then there’s a lot of acting–sometimes the two are mistaken for each other by people who don’t know anything about acting. He’s also too old for the part–Phoenix is 38 and looks older, and his great love is a 16-year-old girl back home. Their scene together is creepy.

I’m mystified why this film is getting pretty good reviews. I don’t usually question critic’s motives, but it seems to me like there’s an “emperor’s new clothes” thing going on here. The film has all the makings of a classic, except that it’s just no good. I hope I never have to see it again.

My grade for The Master: D+.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

12 responses »

  1. Well, you two should see it for yourself. I seem to be in the minority. I have no idea what format I saw it in, but it was in the largest theater at the multiplex.

  2. Saw this last night and I’m not really sure what I think of it yet. I’ll try to work through some of my thoughts off the cuff here…

    For much of the movie I couldn’t grasp the central core of the movie–what drew the two together

    I thought this was pretty clear – Dodd calls Freddie his "protege and his guinea pig" at one point, and I think that explains a lot of the appeal on his end. He's a perfect type of guy for Dodd to have among his ranks, because he can be both an unpredictable enforcer – allowing for a sort of plausible deniability on Dodd's part – and an ideal psychological test subject.

    For Freddie's part, he just wanted to get better. I think this was illustrated in his memories of Doris, and the clear implication to me was that he knew he was fucked up in the head, and couldn't bring himself to go back to her in that state. I don't think he saw Dodd so much as a father as much as a doctor, someone with the promise of curing him. Hence his mounting frustration over time when he didn't get better.

    I think the biggest problem I have is with the actors, specifically Hoffman and Phoenix (Adams is great). I've never liked Phoenix, but this is like Nic Cage in Bad Lieutenant, where all of his assorted tics and mannerisms are not just encouraged but brought to the forefront. As such, it’s kind of liberating, because I’m not being asked to believe that this is a real person, but rather a bizarre synthesis of extreme human characteristics summoned by the filmmakers. It’s funny to say, but he didn’t bother me nearly as much as he usually does (his low point for me was either Walk the Line or Two Lovers).

    But, the problem with both he and Hoffman are that they lack a particular presence that I felt the film needed. This is a big, open-canvas sort of film (I saw it projected 4K, by the way), and both of these guys felt a little small to me. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare it to There Will Be Blood, but I think of how both Day-Lewis and Dano loomed over the film.

    I don’t think either Phoenix or Hoffman do that here. I wouldn’t say that Phoenix is miscast, exactly, but while he can summon a wide range of physicality as an actor, he can’t summon actual emotional sincerity, and the film is missing it from his end.

    Hoffman, meanwhile, is the kind of guy I’d laugh at if I met him. I agree that the first “processing” scene between Dodd and Freddie was a very good scene, but that’s the only one where Hoffman’s able to hold the kind of charisma that I think the role really required. He’s just too small of a presence, and his insecurities too plainly visible, to believe as a successful and charismatic cult leader.

    On the other hand, maybe some of that is the fault of Anderson, who doesn’t seem to have visualized Dodd very clearly. How is it that the man is wholly incapable of dealing with criticism (except for the one scene when he’s confronted by his family over Freddie)? Every time someone on the outside pushes back against him, he gets all flustered and defensive and then angry.

    The one scene that I think best represented what his character should have been was the one in the jail cell, when he calmly and authoritatively dealt with Freddie’s meltdown, even in the face of Freddie’s accusations. Actually, I liked the last scene between them, also, and the way that he dismissed Freddie even as he knew that Freddie had him figured by that point.

    I guess that, if the movie had been more about his hold over Freddie, I might have been more positively inclined towards it. But the movie’s too big and too grand to be just that kind of story, and Dodd’s rising success in the world at large is hard to square with the story of him and Freddie. I think that Anderson really backed himself into a corner here by giving the film the trappings of an epic, and I don’t think it works on that level. I don’t see the grand statement here, just a handful of good scenes mixed in incoherently with a bunch of other stuff that doesn’t make the impact it’s obviously meant to.

  3. I thought this was pretty clear – Dodd calls Freddie his “protege and his guinea pig” at one point, and I think that explains a lot of the appeal on his end. He’s a perfect type of guy for Dodd to have among his ranks, because he can be both an unpredictable enforcer – allowing for a sort of plausible deniability on Dodd’s part – and an ideal psychological test subject.

    I understand that intellectually, but I don’t think it came off that clear. For one thing, Hoffman was horrified at every expression of Phoenix’s violence. Perhaps he was secretly happy with it, but I didn’t get that impression. It seems to me he could have found a more stable protege. And I think that Phoenix’s character would have latched on to anyone that was nice to him.

  4. For one thing, Hoffman was horrified at every expression of Phoenix’s violence. Perhaps he was secretly happy with it, but I didn’t get that impression.

    I did – we never saw any consequences doled out by Dodd to Freddie for his violence, just kind of a shrug and a “no, bad dog” sort of admonishment. That kind of guy is really useful for a guy like Dodd, it gives him a hammer that uses itself, so to speak.

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  6. Wow. Are we at opposite ends of the spectrum on this one.

    This is the closest Anderson has ever come to making a ‘Kubrick movie’ without it being a ‘Kubrick movie’.
    The scene of the naked women at once immediately puts us into Freddie’s head and pulls us out again through Amy Adams’s gaze…we don’t want to be in this dude’s head any more than Phoenix actually does. It’s an astounding scene, and one of the best Anderson has ever put to celluloid.
    And the performances, each to a man (and woman) are astounding. There isn’t a false moment in it. Why would he be held anywhere just because he thought photos looked like genitalia? Why wouldn’t he be released? The relationship with the woman, the altercation at the photo area, all of it hits perfectly.
    And the scene of their first ‘close encounter session’…two titans of acting square off and it’s nothing less than riveting.
    I thought Hoffman played this guy perfectly. If he was secure and sure of himself and didn’t lose his composure, then this would be a nice ‘coffee klatch’ cult, and not the insidious thing it is. The scene where they’re transcribing his words as Freddie tries to write about the girl fucking him is TERRIFYING in what it doesn’t reveal while it reveals EVERYTHING about the group. Dodd, like any good cult leader, is Teflon. He’s the John Gotti of cult leaders, smarmy when he needs to be, unhinged just enough (like at the party) to let you know he’s a caged animal in his head, and willing to ‘take a chance on a guy’ simply because the guy is crazy enough to still be making his way through the world in his state.
    I need to watch this again to really understand it, I think, but this movie is a masterpiece. Straight up. And each performance is remarkable.

  7. Oh, and if you think the scene between Phoenix and the girl rings ‘false’, well, you don’t know how many 40 year olds hang out with young women in the ‘burbs. Just sayin’. You may think it’s (rightly) creepy, but there wasn’t a thing false about it.
    And wasn’t it a flashback? It was a memory. So if anything, they just did a bad job of making you believe he was any younger. That’s too bad.

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