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Movie review: The Master

Updated on October 31, 2012

Although director Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't have a large body of work, what there is of it is of high quality. In the last sixteen years he has released only six features, including Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love.

His last film, 2007's There Will Be Blood was nominated for eight Oscars, and picked up two (Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis and Best Cinematography). So his latest release comes with a fair amount of expectation, including a frightening amount of Oscar buzz for both Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman as well as Best Picture.

Also aiding the word of mouth surrounding the film's release is its supposedly controversial subject matter, that of a cult that to many is eerily similar to that of Scientology. The fact is though, this is only really going to bother you if your name is Tom Cruise or John Travolta, both of whom probably have bigger things on their plates to worry about.

The irony is however, much like Scientology itself, there's nothing of any real substance here.

With World War II over, veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) struggles to re-adjust to being back on Civvy Street. He finds solace in his own alcoholic concoctions that help dull senses within a society he doesn't see himself a part of.

It's after one episode of being accused of poisoning someone with his home made brew, he finds shelter in a familiar surroundings – on a boat. When he's discovered aboard, he's taken to see Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), who seems to be in charge somehow.

Although the boat is essentially a wedding party, with Dodd's daughter getting married, it's also a gathering for followers of Dodd, who is the author of a book titled The Cause. Dodd sits down with Freddie, and decides to inflict some "informal processing" upon him. This is a series of questions, often repeated, that are suppose to trigger reactions and emotions in its subjects.

Freddie's replies intrigue Dodd, who decides to take him on as his protégé and educate him into the ways of his movement. What starts off as a student/master scenario, soon develops into a ambiguous relationship.

There's only one way to say this:The Master is a disappointment. In a fairly uninspiring year of releases, Anderson's film looked like it could just swoop in and save the day. And of course it doesn't.

Yes, the two leads put in some impressive performances; Hoffman is his usual compelling self, and Phoenix is mesmerising in patches, only let down – literally – by one side of his mouth that often looks like it's doing its own method thing by not moving, making much of his dialogue difficult to follow.

And regardless of all the hype, this is not a film about Scientology; it's not really a film about a cult. It's a film about two men and the relationship that develops between them. And by extension of that, it's a film about who can act the best between Hoffman and Phoenix. And because of this, the film as a whole suffers.

Because the two main performances are quite intense, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the film's story is wafer thin. It has no momentum whatsoever, simply treading water for the film's entire 143 minutes. It is nothing short of a plodding plotless wonder, purely focused and driven by the interaction of its two central protagonists.

Anderson appears to have got swallowed up by the connection of these two characters and simply forgotten about a cohesive narrative to push them forward.

There are already excuses rushing to the film's defence in stating that it's the type of film that needs two or more viewings to really get to grips with. If a film needs more than one viewing to get to grips with, then it's just doing something wrong.

It's a shame that the film didn't have more to say about the development of a cult, particularly during the film's period setting of the fifties; Anderson at least makes the film looked good, even if it doesn't really have much to say.

The Master is a tour-de-force in acting, but lacks any substance on the story-telling front.

No doubt many will hail it as a true classic, but don't get sucked into their cultist behaviour; although intriguing, this film is disappointingly flawed. Just remember, the Emperor(/Master) really isn't wearing new clothes at all.

3 booms


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    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Interesting that this film wasn't great because you have a great cast and great director. Always a disappointment when that happens.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      I agree with you. The film promised a lot but dlivered very little, much like Dodd himself. Very disappointing. Hoffman was the only thing I liked about the film.