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The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)

Directed byPaul Thomas Anderson

The cast includes:

So what’s it about?

Returning from Navy service in World War II, Freddie Quell drifts through a series of PTSD-driven breakdowns. Finally he stumbles upon a cult called “The Cause” which engages in past life regression therapy and exercises to clear the emotions. He becomes deeply involved with them and their charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd, but does it change anything fundamental in his life? (Source: IMDB)

The review:

The Master” by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson has come to town with a lot of buzz surrounding it. Anderson’s last film, “There will be blood” (2007), swept Daniel Day-Lewis to deserved Oscar glory and there is every indication that this latest movie will do the same for its stars; Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Beyond this, the film has also generated headlines for its purported subject matter: the early days of Scientology and its founder, the charismatic writer L. Ron Hubbard. These two elements make for must-see cinema but is it as good as other reviewers have made out?

First off let me say that the film is absolutely fantastic in a lot of ways. The cinematography by Mihai Milamaire is beautifully shot throughout. The costumes and set design evoke the age. The music score composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood adds greatly to the movie. And in terms of the acting, I can find no fault. Anderson makes heavy use of close-ups all the way through the movie to capture every nuance of the character-driven performances on show. In particular, both Hoffman’s and Phoenix’s performances are worth their weight in gold.

Phoenix does not even remotely resemble the figure I last saw in “Walk the Line”; here he is a gaunt, haunted shadow of himself. His stick-thin frame exudes a sickness of the soul which he cannot ‘quell’ and it is one of the most brilliantly heart-breaking performances of mental illness that I’ve ever seen. Phoenix has always had a vulnerable quality to his acting which made you empathise with him. Quell is a mass of nervous tics and unpredictable tempers so much so that you are always caught wrong-footed trying to guess whether he will strike out at someone or rock back with laughter instead. Indeed, when Joaquin Phoenix’s name was mentioned in conversations prior to seeing the movie, the verdict came back that “That man sure has his demons”. Now, while this may or may not be true, he certainly brings all these demons (and more) to his portrayal of the troubled alcoholic Freddie Quell.

Hoffman by contrast, gives an exquisitely intuitive performance as the charlatan Lancaster Dodd. In fact, it is like watching a ‘master’ at work such is his virtuosity in playing the role. Dodd grandstands and showboats the strength of his convictions one moment, charming all-comers around him the next, before finally giving vent to moments of self-doubt and thundering rage. Hoffman has made something of a career playing vaguely lovable conceited oafs and here we have what must be his ultimate conceited oaf.

The only somewhat troubling aspect here is how sympathetic I found Dodd as a character. He is presented as the ‘Master’ for Quells’ character; the salve that he seems to need and want but, ultimately, Quell rejects him. Thus the experiment of making Quell his protégé and the first real convert to “The Cause” fails and Dodd is left knowing how empty his rhetoric and “The Cause” really is. This realisation of his own limitations is shown emphatically, as Dodd watches nervously as the gathered crowd await his latest flawed writings. The more so when we realise his wife, Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), is really his Master, and the power behind the throne driving the new movement forward with more determination and ruthlessness than he himself ever could.

The partnership of Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman recalls their performances from “Doubt” (2008). And perhaps, that is the neatest way to sum up the difference between Lancaster Dodd and his wife Peggy: he has doubt about his role as leader and about his persuasiveness while she has none. Peggy dictates his every move but it is Quell that he looks to for some kind of tacit approval. And it is this that Peggy cannot understand or condone.

Peggy Dodd is a chillingly brilliant character – accurately described on IMDB’s discussion boards as the film’s Lady Macbeth – and she is played with steely determination by Amy Adams in a much darker role than we have previously seen her in. It is her character that tries to drive a rift between Quell and Dodd; recognising how much they both seem to need each other and how insidiously involved Quell has become in their lives. Unlike Dodd, she sees Quell is just as fiercely loyal to his self-destructive urges as to Dodd, though importantly not to their movement. In fact, the relationship between Dodd and Quell is the film’s major success. They are a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern partnership: with Dodd thinking he is wise but is actually an idiot and Quell presented as damaged & mentally deficient yet he is strangely wise and intuitive. They spar off each other expertly delivering a real master-class in acting and they do represent the two interesting story elements clashing together.

These two elements are: a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) navy veteran of WW2 desperately searching for some kind of respite from his own tortured soul and broken mentality and a honey-tongued ‘snake oil salesman’ peddling his own cult. Paul Thomas Anderson has said that, despite all the research he did into Dianetics, “The Master” wasn’t really about Scientology; it was really about a naval man coming home from WW2. And he’s right. This is Quell’s story, not Lancaster Dodd’s. It is Quell we start with and it is Quell we end with. The cult aspect is a filter for the journey Quell’s psyche has to go one following the war. The story’s preoccupation with Freddy’s shell-shock is better understood when you find out that Anderson has admitted ‘borrowing’ quite sizable chunks from John Huston’s controversial 1946 documentary, “Let There Be Light”. Huston’s film followed a group of PTSD-sufferers at an army hospital and was banned for almost thirty years for its sensitive subject manner. In the euphoria of finally winning the war, there seemed to be an entirely forgotten legacy for a great number of its returning soldiers: namely, a lifetime of mental health issues.

Once you have watched this documentary – and I urge you all to do so prior to going to see “The Master” – then you will understand the movie a good deal better. The movie has been called oblique but it is really straightforward in a lot of ways. It is about those that want to lead and those that want to be lead. Quell searches for something to help him gain some peace but ends up seeing through Dodd and rejecting “The Cause”. The scenes where Quell looks in pity and disappointment at Dodd – at the unveiling of Dodd’s new book and then again when he rejects Dodd’s final offer of joining “The Cause” – are incredibly moving. Not to mention the rage-filled denunciation of Dodd in the prison cell where he yells “Tell me something that is true”.

Indeed, in one of Dodd’s first encounters with Quell, he asks him why he doesn’t go back to his hometown to be with his one true love Doris. Quell breaks down – as Dodd clearly intended him to – and says he doesn’t know why. But you later understand that he does know. He knows only too well that his experiences during the war have changed him irrevocably. He cannot go back in the shape he is in now and it is heartbreaking just how lost he has become. This is further shown when he plucks up the courage to speak to Doris’s mother. She is kind to him and reacts in a friendly manner which suggests she is not so fearful or distrusting of him as others have come to be. Hence when he was wooing Doris prior to the war, his alcoholism and dangerously unpredictable mood swings must not have been an issue.

However, this is just my interpretation of a movie which allows the viewer to ‘join the dots’ themselves and come up with multiple interpretations. Other reviewers have likened Quell to Jesus Christ, Odysseus and lots more besides. There is a real ambiguity to the movie unquestionably which allows for the viewer to think in quite far-fetched terms as these. I have thought a lot about the film and vacillated quite greatly in what I thought about it. In the end, I do think the movie is, on the whole a straightforward exploration of mental illness in the aftermath of WW2 but Anderson’s overlong impressionistic movie does allow for such speculation too. You can either see this as a strength or a fault. For me, this was a fault, not just in this movie but in most of Anderson’s movies. Let us examine how many of his films have been under 2 hours:

Other films directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and their running times:

Of his movies, only “Sydney”/”Hard Eight” (his first movie) and “Punch-drunk love” (the one movie he went on record to say he wanted to make as a 90 minute picture) are under two hours. The rest are desperately in need of trimming the fat, “The Master” included. There are brilliant dramatic scenes throughout but they are also invariably overly long, either in terms of their wordiness or lingering on unnecessarily for no discernible reason. As the director of his own writing, he has not come to terms with Stephen King’s maxim: “Be prepared to kill your darlings”. Anderson, it must be concluded, does not have the will or the ruthlessness to cut his writing to make it tighter and more enjoyable to watch. As it is, you sometimes are worn down by ‘look at your watch’ long scenes. Another criticism is that I am not convinced that the movie would be half as good without Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams.

By way of conclusion, “The Master” is a must-see journey through the murky world of PTSD mental illness and the chicanery of cultism boasting some powerhouse performances. You have to see this movie once. And probably once is enough. Anderson’s lack of rigour in his editing of his novelistic screenplay and the movie itself mean it is unlikely you will want or need to come back to visit this way again. This is not to say that the movie is not an exceptionally good piece of work; it is and it will certainly linger on in your thoughts long after watching it. Although, realistically this means you spend your time thinking about what the intentions of the movie were rather than considering its themes. Which is a pity. 

IN SHORT: This compelling character-driven tale will make you too fall under the spell of “The Master

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

Outstanding, just needed a stronger hand on the tiller.

 What did you think? Did you enjoy “The Master”? Leave a comment and rate it below.

  1. Check out the film’s official site
  2. Read about the film on Wikipedia
  3. Read about the film on Rottentomatoes.com
  4. Read about the film on the Guardian’s site
  5. Read the 5-star review on Totalfilm.com
  6. Check out the film on IMDB

Watch the John Huston documentary “Let There Be Light” (1946) here:

Watch the trailer for “The Master” (2012) here:

About dustforprints

Part bibliophile, part cinephile, part dream weaver. Hmmn... in short, I like books and movies and I write words about both from time to time.


6 thoughts on “The Master (2012)

  1. Interesting – I had mostly heard bad about this but you’ve made it sound intriguing.

    Posted by mistylayne | November 28, 2012, 2:58 am
    • I’d be interested to know what other reviewer’s criticisms of the movie are. I do think that you take from it what you put into it. By that I mean, you have to think about it and piece it altogether for yourself to a certain extent. So either the pieces fit together for you or it just becomes a horrible mess. Hopefully I’ve not put you off cos intriguing is probably just the right word.

      Posted by dustforprints | November 29, 2012, 7:13 pm
      • A big complaint was about Phoenix’s acting – that it was ridiculously over the top and pulled one out of the movie. But as I haven’t seen it yet, I don’t know.

        Posted by mistylayne | November 30, 2012, 4:53 pm
  2. I loved it, it’s one of the best films of the year. Nice review.

    Posted by ckckred | November 29, 2012, 12:23 pm
    • I do think it is a ‘grower’ – wasn’t sure how I felt about it when I first sure it. It is a terrific film, just maybe needed a bit of editing down. Think I may just have to go get Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack too.

      Posted by dustforprints | November 29, 2012, 7:15 pm
  3. Very good write-up! I share a lot of your opinions on the film. I would certainly need to see it again to even begin to grasp it, though.

    Posted by AndyWatchesMovies | November 29, 2012, 9:33 pm

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