Monday, September 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Master

Some of the best work Hollywood has ever done can be found in The Master, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, whose last film was the wonderful There Will Be Blood.  The score is magnificent.  The cinematography is spectacular.  The film's recreation of the United States in 1950 -- the cars, the clothes, the buildings, the houses -- is uncanny.  And some of our greatest actors, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Laura Dern, give extraordinary performances.  For cinephiles, almost every moment of the film provides some moment of perfection -- as can be seen by the rapturous reviews it has received from so many critics.  In light of these facts, it pains me to report that for the rest of us, the film is almost unwatchable.

I mean that last statement quite literally.  I was very excited to see this movie, and I was able to watch it at a brand-new theater that specializes in arty flicks.  During the previews, and for about the first hour or so, I had that almost-painful excitement that one gets at a long-anticipated film.  But my interest started to flag at that point, and continued to wane for the remaining hour and 17 minutes before The Master finally ended.  For the last 30 minutes or so, I simply hoped that each scene in the movie was the last.  And I think most people would have a similar response.

To explain my reaction, I will have to describe the film.  (Spoilers follow, although there's not much to spoil.)  The Master starts by introducing us to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who was in the navy during World War II and who finds it extremely difficult to adjust to the civilian world -- mainly because he is a violent alcoholic with intense sexual obsessions.  We watch him fall down the scale of American life until he is accused of poisoning one of his fellow lettuce-pickers in California, and is forced to flee.

Quell heads for the docks, and ends up on a ship carrying Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), the "Master" of the title.  Dodd has founded a Scientology-like cult known only as "The Cause," and is on his way with his family (including his wife, played by Amy Adams) to New York for meetings with some of his wealth disciples.  Dodd is intrigued by the brutal Quell, and decides to take him on as a "protege and guinea pig."  He spends enormous amounts of time trying to "process" Quell in accordance with the teachings of the Cause -- much to the dismay of his family, who dislike Quell almost as much as I did.

Now at this point, the film could have gone in several interesting directions.  Quell could have become a loyal disciple and helped Dodd advance The Cause.  Quell could have decided that Dodd was a fraud (as Dodd's own son believes) and worked against The Cause.  Quell and Dodd could have learned to love each other, or learned to hate each other.  In fact, toward the end of the film, Dodd tells Quell that in the next life (The Cause is big on reincarnation) they will be mortal enemies, and that Dodd will give Quell no quarter.

But in this life, nothing so dramatic takes place.  Anderson shows us that Dodd is an egomaniac, a great performer, a man with a certain charisma who is given to fits of rage when people question him.  But he steadfastly refuses to tell us for certain whether Dodd is, or is not, a fraud.  He also refuses to tell us whether Quell is really interested in a spiritual quest, or whether he is simply looking for a handout.  So Quell and Dodd go around and around -- sometimes working together, sometimes screaming at each other, but never really giving ground.  Quell eventually leaves Dodd to track down the fate of an old girlfriend from his past -- then follows Dodd to England (we don't know why Dodd has left America) for a final argument before they split, apparently for good.  At the end, Quell seems as brutal as ever, although he may be somewhat happier.  Dodd continues to bully and entertain his tiny group of believers.  And that's pretty much all there is (although Anderson has also shoved in a lot of crude sexual imagery, apparently to give the grad students something to ponder).

In watching the endless scenes between Dodd and Quell, I couldn't help but be reminded of very similar scenes from There Will Be Blood between the savage businessman played by Daniel Day-Lewis and the shady preacher played by Paul Dano.  For this movie, Quell has the vicious instincts of the Day-Lewis character, but without so much intelligence.  And Dodd has the Pied-Piper charisma of the Dano character, but is somewhat cleverer.  Perhaps Anderson wanted to work through some of the same issues, but with a relatively stronger "preacher" and a relatively weaker "skeptic."

But if that's what he was trying to do, I don't think he succeeded.  Capitalism and Christianity are living, powerful forces capable of an awesome hold on the human mind and spirit.  Any contest between their disciples -- even the flawed versions on display in There Will Be Blood -- has an inherent drama for anyone brought up in Western culture.  By contrast, the characters in The Master are arguing about a made-up religion in which no one actually believes, while Quell appears to have no secular ambitions other than to drink and have sex.  Under such circumstances -- and particularly in light of the fact that Dodd and Quell are presented as virtual forces of nature who change very little over the course of the movie -- I think most people will find it very difficult to care about their disputes.

And if you don't care about Quell and Dodd, then there's just not enough reason to keep watching.  There are glimpses of another -- and potentially much more interesting -- movie in the scenes where we see Dodd interacting with his disciples and non-believers.  But Anderson himself seems to have relatively little interest in this part of the picture, and we rush through these scenes to return to yet another tete-a-tete between Quell and Dodd.  (Laura Dern in particular was horribly under-used.)  A lot of the press accounts have described The Master as a movie about the beginnings of Scientology, and I for one would have been interested in such a movie.  But in this movie, Dodd's effort to grow his cult is a mere subplot compared to his relationship with Quell.

So in the end, all one is left with is a sense of wonder at the amazing talent on display in this film, and genuine sadness that so much work and ability has gone into something so pointless.  For all it's high-falutin' experimentation, the thoughts conveyed by The Master are mostly banal platitudes, like "War is really tough on some people," and "You should be careful about whom you choose to follow."

Anderson may think that by not giving the audience much of a "story," by simply presenting us with these two horrific people and letting us watch them for awhile, he is opening up new possibilities for us to consider.  But Quell and Dodd are so terribly flawed that it is virtually impossible to identify with them, much less learn from them.  And to me, Anderson's refusal to give the audience more guidance is simply weak.  Not so long ago, artists believed that they could change the world.  These days, many artists don't even seem as though they want to change our minds.

Not recommended.


  1. One final thought. The next time I see a critic bemoaning the fact that audience members don't give more weight to film criticism, I'm going to remember that most critics urged people to watch "The Master."

  2. USA Today had the same basic response to this movie that you did, but I think that reviewer's hopes weren't as high going in as yours were.

    My least-favorite movie of all time is Match Point. My second-least-favorite is Wayne Huizenga's ownership of the Miami Dolphins.

  3. If you listened to Kornheiser you wouldn't have had such high hopes as the Post movie critic was not very upbeat about it.

    1. Ah, thanks for reminding me to go back and listen to Friday's show! I didn't get to hear it last week.

    2. Yeah, I read her review last night, and I pretty much agreed with everything she said. But it still has a rating of 86 % percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.