The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson‘s follow-up to There Will Be Blood came with a lot of misconceptions. Is it about Scientology? Yes and no. Does it deconstruct Scientology? Not at all. The film paints a portrait of a veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who returns home, but is still adrift, only to end up in the arms (and cult) of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Is it a masterpiece? Read on…

The Players:

  • Writer – Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams,  Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern
  • Cinematography by: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
  • Original Music by: Johnny Greenwood

The Plot:

Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is a veteran who’s been drinking heavily since forever, and is an id personified. He craves sex, and the obliteration only drinks made from chemicals can provide. After losing his job at a department store, and as a farm worker, he stows away on a boat borrowed by Lancaster Dodd (Phoenix) to have his daughter’s wedding. There Dodd samples Quell’s homemade liquor and brings him into his fold. Dodd wrote a book called “The Source” and it’s become a blueprint for a belief system. Though Dodd is able to keep Quell around for a while, and Freddie is endlessly loyal to Dodd, his animal nature keeps him from ever fitting in.

The Good:

  • Phoenix the Phoenix: Joaquin Phoenix dropped out of the scene for a while after the art-project fiasco that was I’m Still Here. Which is too bad because his performance here is one for the ages. His Freddie Quell is one of those brilliant turns where the actor just disappears into the role, and Phoenix’s raw energy — his unquenchable or endless black hole of a life — cannot be closed or stopped. He’s magnetic.
  • Hoffman: What’s surprising about Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film is how much he gets to play. He does something that’s precarious: he plays someone who knows how to turn on his “presentation” switch, and does so often with great (but not funny) humor. And so it’s a more playful turn than you might expect from the leader of a cult. As he says repeatedly “Laughing is good.”
  • 70mm: The film was partly shot on 65mm film stock, and it seems that Paul Thomas Anderson adapted to this by shooting the film in a lockdown aesthetic. Anderson is one of the greatest movers of camera, so it’s as if the director challenged himself to not rely on his strengths, though perhaps this was because the 65mm cameras required it. But – though the film never attempts the impressive vistas of a film like Lawrence of Arabia – it’s gorgeous nonetheless, and in the first hour there are some strikingly cinematic moments. Specifically a seductive steadicam shot where a model walks through a department store modeling a jacket, and one of the greatest dissolves in the history of cinema.

The Mixed:

  • Discipline Without Discipline: Great performances and impressive visuals are enough to make any movie worth seeing, that much is certain, and The Master should be seen, preferably in 70mm. But for a film that feels so controlled and precise, it’s hard not to wonder how the pieces fit together. And many just don’t. There are ideas thrown at the screen that may have had great significance within the context of Anderson’s research on making the film, but don’t really go any place, and often seem details that ultimately don’t add (and possibly subtract) from the film. There’s a great, challenging sequence where Amy Adams’s wife Peggy confronts her husband about what she expects from him as a husband (and she’s not his first wife), but Dodd never gives the impression that he’s also trying to have sex with anything that moves like Quell does. And the fact that the film compares and contrasts Quell and Dodd makes this scene stand out, but it ends up only adding to the fabric of the film. Not everything needs to correlate, but there are moments that seem to contradict things that have come before in Dodd’s character.  If that’s to paint a picture of a flawed man, okay, but…

The Bad:

  • Nothing Really: There is nothing wrong with trying to make a great film and ending up with a good, possibly really good film. And a lot of other people, people who I think are really movie savvy, etc. think this is a masterpiece. But great movies usually say something. Accomplish something. And though there are truly great and amazing pieces of this film, as a whole, it just doesn’t congeal. Perhaps this is a portrait – much like There Will Be Blood – of an id man, someone who is defined by his lust. And that portrait is powerful, but the fact that he’s a veteran doesn’t really add much to the equation. And though Lancaster Dodd may be modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, the film isn’t a take-down of Scientology. But then why have a cult leader as your second lead if his cult isn’t part of the driving force? It’s possible these pieces fit together, though perhaps best in Anderson’s mind, and I would love to see footnotes for a number of scenes, perhaps a scene that features a buried manuscript is drawn directly from a real event that Anderson was paying homage to and knowing what that event was might deepen my appreciation. But if not, it suggests that Anderson is just throwing things at the screen to see what sticks. And if that’s the case, it could be easy to be fooled by the sumptuous control he has over the visuals to think everything means something.


Powerful, but frustrating. The Master is a film to be seen and talked about, and things about the movie will resonate in ways that the majority of summer films never can. And if it misses clearing the fences, it’s worth watching just to see someone of great skill hit as hard as they can.

Rating: 8/10

The Master opens in New York and Los Angeles September 14, with a wide release on September 21.

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