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Film Review: The Master

Posted on by sam

The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

First one in the comments to correctly name the actor gets a mention in the next film review


Another film at The Showroom Cinema and another film I saw with my cool mum who doesn’t have the secret to Bruce Forsyth’s immortality tattooed on her back.

The Master was a film I’d been really looking forward to because basically it could go one of two ways. It could be been a bona fide classic; it’s got a stellar cast featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adam’s and Jesse Plemons (good to know someone made it out of Battleship with a career who didn’t then rekindle a romance with a woman-beater), it’s got a big budget, it explores an interesting topic i.e. cults (spelled C-U-L-T but pronounced S-C-I-E-N-T-O-L-O-G-Y) and a director with a decent track record. On the other hand, I say decent track record and not proven because, and I know many of my learned film friend’s disagree with me, Paul Thomas Anderson’s last feature film was one of the most boring thing’s I can remember. I actually had a choice at one point between reviewing There Will Be Blood and Green Hornet, I picked Green Hornet because I couldn’t think of a way to turn the sentence ‘nothing happens for two hours and then a guy kills a priest with a bowling pin’ into a full review. Sorry if that should be a spoiler.

Look, I’m a reasonably open minded (at least when Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines isn’t involved) wannabe indie filmmaker, I’ll always respect effort and/or honesty but there are two things I can’t forgive; one is laziness (Dragon Ball Evolution/Saved by the bell the mutant college years) and the other is a film that’s boring. I don’t mean boring as in there are boring moments, I got bored by the five thousand endings of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but I wouldn’t ever call that a boring film. No, I mean boring as in a film where so little of interest happens, or I’ve been given so little reason to care about anything on screen, that the act of maintaining focus becomes a draining exercise in mental exertion. There Will Be Blood was exactly that, yes I know it’s a horrible thought living in a world where even Daniel Day Lewis can be in a bad film, but we’ll just have to get through it together.

The Master had too many good parts to simply be a bad film that’s enjoyable, so it would either be great or a disappointment. Middle ground arbitrarily eliminated I guess there’s nothing left to do except write the rhetorical question and pretend you, the reader who doesn’t exist, asked it.

So Sam, was The Master any good?

Answer: I need more time, give me a plot summary to think about it.

Plot Summary; Joaquin Phoenix (remember when he was just that bad guy in Gladiator?) plays classically alcoholic Freddie Quell. By classically I mean horribly weak, damaged and narcissistic, as opposed to the ‘oh look it’s a cheeky chappy alcoholic, ahh look at the little harmless bugger’ modern day alcoholic portrayals (Frank Gallagher, Don Draper, Karen Walker, Jimmy McNulty etc etc sad extra etc). Massive massive apologies for the following rant but, alcoholics are fucking arseholes and for every ‘cheeky’ one you see on the street, there’s a whole line of broken friendships, family ties and promises covered in vomit.

Projection over I’ll restart the plot summary…………

Joaquin Phoenix (remember when he was just that bad guy in Gladiator?) plays classically alcoholic Freddie Quell. Freddie was a naval officer in World War 2, who suffers the twin horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder (I did a skydive to raise money for that once) and sex obsession (I jumped out a plane to avoid a rapist once), which, when combined with alcohol and a post-war peace time society looking to rebuild itself as a super power, does not a hero make.

Freddie’s tendency to mix ridiculous cocktails of at least one part jet fuel probably doesn’t help either. Soon Freddie finds himself fired from a job as a mall photographer and later on the run when one of his cocktails ‘accidently’ kills an elderly migrant worker who reminded him of his father (the word accident is written ‘accident’ because, as with a lot of what happens later in the Master, there’s a certain level of interpretation afforded the viewer, so I’m going with accident, but it could have very easily been deliberate, truthfully it doesn’t matter either way). Broke, drunk, on the run and far away from boobs, he stows away on a huge yacht and slumbers.

The yacht belongs to Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a spiritual movement (pronounced C-U-L-T) called The Cause, which seems suspiciously like meeting L Ron Hubbard and the early Scientology movement. The Cause members include Peggy (Amy Adams), Lancaster’s wife, Lancaster;s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers who deserves a big career but could do with sorting out the spelling of her first name), Clark (Rami Malek), who within two minutes of meeting Freddie becomes Elizabeth’s husband, Lancaster’s more sceptical son Val (Jesse ‘shocked me in Breaking Bad’ Plemons), and a couple of dozen other cultists followers.

What occurs next is three fold; firstly we get the early troubles of Scientology The Cause, as they battle for Tom Cruise legitimacy, which allows for a nice social backdrop and some interesting characterisation, particularly for Amy Adam’s Peggy. The second is we see the contradictory existence of cult leader Lancaster. He seems utterly in control one moment and almost helpless the next, and finally we get to see the transition of Freddie, who goes from lumbering alcoholic, to violent, borderline insane cult new spiritual movement alcoholic, and finally mentally broken down and rebuilt fledgling cultist new spiritual movement member who can successfully differentiate between a window and a wooden wall, having had to walk between the two for none existent god knows how many times.

Plot summary finishes

So is The Master a good film?

Ha ha Roger Ebert fell for it!

Truthfully, I have absolutely no idea, forgive me the language of a tosspot but The Master is one if those films that exist separately from the concept of good or bad. It’s just a bizarre, incredibly powerful film and I actually found myself walking out of it feeling like my brain had been bludgeoned, a feeling that took a good number of hours to dissipate. There’s something incredibly tense and draining about the experience of watching it.

The Master ‘achieves’ this by mixing a bunch of different things together, starting with the acting. The support cast are perfunctory (thank you Ryan Finnigan or more accurately Alan Parker via Ryan Finnigan), and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is as incredible as ever, but it’s Joaquin Phoenix who steals the show. Everything about Freddie Quell seems so real, right down to the broken speech pattern and the hair lip, even his posture, he totally becomes that character, and what a compelling character. He isn’t likeable, he’s pitiable and tragic but in a way that makes you more attached to him, throw some incredible scenes across from Hoffman (who’s also the total package regarding characterisation), and some incredibly real, non-expository dialogue and you basically can’t stop watching the guy.

Then there’s the script, which Paul Thomas Anderson apparently wrote himself. It’s unique, there’s so much going on with so many different characters and yet everything focuses back down to Freddie, and Freddie is, as I’ve mentioned, compelling. He’s displaced, alien to the world around him and at times utterly isolated, which is exactly what happens to the audience. Every time it seems Freddie’s beginning to fall in with the ways of The cult Cause there’s a moment, it may be Freddie being violent, or it may be other cultist spiritual movement members doubting Freddie’s commitment, but something always keeps him detached, which likewise happens to the audience.

Finally, as I mentioned before, a hell of a lot is left for interpretation, we get what the characters did, and we see their background, but why characters act in a certain way, that’s left for the audience to decide, and there are things that can be interpreted in different ways. I’ll use Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship as an example; it’s quite possible Lancaster simply kept Freddie around for amusement, there’s certainly an element of teasing to how Lancaster initially spoke to Freddie, but then again its possible Lancaster kept Freddie around because he saw Freddie as a means of accessing alcohol. Alternatively, it could purely have been because Freddie had a habit of rubbing some of the other members up the wrong way and Lancaster found amusement in that fact.

I could go on, but the point is there are scenes to back each one of those theories and more, characters don’t discuss their motivation, they discuss philosophy, each other or the general day to day stuff, but none of them present any answers, only more questions.

Combine the script with an emotive subject, a director displaying a deft touch and two fantastic leads and you have an experience, and that’s what, in my uneducated opinion, The Master is, an experience.

Are there faults? Sure, The Master doesn’t quite know when to end, and there are some wasted opportunities to develop some of the support cast (Jesse Plemons’s Val in particular is given too little time) and there’s perhaps a slight over reliance on montages (albeit montages with an awesome musical motif) but these are the minor criticisms of a wannabe who believes a single existent shred of credibility can only be maintained by naming such and pale in comparison to the positives.

I don’t like to use the phrase incredible, because so little of cinema really is such, there are things about certain films that are incredible (such as how great story telling makes Yojimbo timeless), but for a film to be incredible, pretty much everything about it has to be exceptional. The Master is as closes to an incredible film as I think you’re ever likely to get (it’s not alone in this). I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of watching it, but I’m truly glad I did and I’d recommend it. The most enjoyable film I’ve seen this year so far has been the sublime Moonrise Kingdom (sadly also one of the worst written reviews on the site), but the film I’ll still be thinking about and trying to figure out a year from now is The Master, go and see it, you might not enjoy it, but you won’t regret it.

Written By Sam ‘I made out like The Cause was Just Scientology, get it? Get it?’ McKinstrie

Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP

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