MOVIE REVIEW: The Master

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THE MASTER-- 2 STARS

I'll go on the record right now and say that I've never been a fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson.  His movies, while technically sound and visually sharp, always seem tiresome, bizarre, and vague to me.  In many eyes of big-wig critics, those adjectives make him a courageous, risk-tasking genius.  Sorry, but I think it makes him exactly what I said: tiresome, bizarre, and vague.

Anderson's debut film, the under-seen gambling film Hard Eight  from 1996, is an efficient and clever little thriller.  That debut propelled him to great heights with Boogie Nights a year later, which is filled with great moments and fantastic characters.  It's been all downhill from there.  Magnolia, save for Tom Cruise's electric supporting character, was a clinic of disconnect and scramble.  Punch Drunk Love tried to give Adam Sandler some drama, but was even worse than Magnolia.

Then, after a long absence, came There Will Be Blood, Anderson's most critically successful film up to this point.  The film, centered around the California oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was powered almost singlehandedly by Daniel Day-Lewis's dominant lead performance.  The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but only won two (one for Day-Lewis and the other for cinematography).  For all of its American Dream ambition, I've never seen such a great film completely sputter to a terrible finish.

Well, I might have found a film that tops that dubious sputtering distinction, and it's another one from Paul Thomas Anderson.  His latest film, the heavily hyped and highly regarded The Master follows the downward spiral of every Anderson film.  Starting with a great thought-provoking topic, dynamic characters, and striking performances, the ingredients are there for greatness.  However, after that, very little of what is attempted and executed works.

To interpret The Master as simply as I can, I've seen few movies that go so many places without really going anywhere as this film does.  I've only seen a handful of films that claimed to have volumes to say and  then didn't offering anything pertinent or memorable.  Last year, I saw two movies that behaved the exact same way.  

They were well-made with big ideas and went nowhere for hours.  One was Melancholia, Lars Von Trier's end-of-the-world drama that takes place at the most depressing and implausible wedding weekend possible.  The other was The Tree of Life.  Those of you who follow my website know my absolute befuddlement, frustration, and disdain for last year's Terrance Malick opus.  If you don't know me, do me a favor and read that review.  It's a blood bath.

The Master  joins that befuddlement club.  It's not as WTF bad as those two, but close.  Toronto-based writer Louis Plamondon, a.k.a. The Sleepy Skunk, a Facebook friend and movie peer of mine, might have said it best when he called The Master "the most well-crafted and well-acted bad movie ever made."  I have to agree.  He was able to see the film at the Toronto Film Festival and his full review is a great read.

Let's get to the movie.  Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix, ending his fake retirement, stars as Freddie Quell, a wayward gaunt mess of a drifter.  A slacker Navy veteran of the second World War, he finished his service under unsuccessful mental treatment at the V.A. and his only useful talent appears to be distilling moonshine from any available dangerous and odd liquids and chemicals.  Failing every job he tries and on the run in 1950, the violent and alcoholic Freddie sneaks aboard a San Francisco yacht hosting a lavish party.  The vessel is hosted by the decadent Lancaster Dodd, played by Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman.  The cruise hosts a large gathering of family and friends for his daughter's wedding and a long vacation through the Panama Canal to New York.

Upon discovering Freddie as a stowaway, the accepting Dodd introduces himself as a writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher, and a man.  Seeing Freddie's fragile mental makeup, Dodd offers to help him with his beliefs.  Lancaster Dodd is the founder and leader of "The Cause," a growing order of both ordinary and influential people who believe in past lives, the trillion year history of the soul and the universe, and other powerful connections between people.  His followers call him "The Master."  His methodology of inclusion is called "processing," which involves rigorous interviews, deep therapy sessions, and unorthodox mental training.  Lancaster's closest confidant and kindred spirit for the "The Cause" and its operations is his steely wife Peggy, played by three-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams.  Throughout their extended time together at sea, Dodd draws inspiration from Freddie, while Freddie himself starts to free some of his demons.

Following the cruise, Freddie remains with Dodd and his following, inserting himself as Lancaster's protege and as the deputized bully to those outsiders who would question or challenge "The Cause" as a wildly misguided cult.  As their time together continues, so does Freddie's bizarre and difficult indoctrination into Lancaster's way of thinking.  It's from here that the movie, more and more, begins to drift.  It feels like Paul Thomas Anderson kept throwing original ideas together, none of which stick very well, until he ran out of them.  If all he was trying to do was make something like Scientology look weird, crazy, and misguided, than he made a movie that matches those qualities.

You wait for nearly two-and-a-half hours for a revelation, comeuppance, or denouement to arrive for either Freddie, Lancaster, or both and none of those story elements ever come.  Many of those aforementioned big-wig critics out there profess that The Master requires multiple viewings to comprehend.  I'm sorry, but that's not good enough for me.  Multiple viewings of a film are fine to appreciate and discover layers from what was enjoyed and impressive the first time.  You shouldn't need multiple viewings to "get" the purpose.  That just shows me you failed the first time.  I consider myself a sharp guy and enough of a cinema aficionado to appreciate the "art" of cinema as much as the entertainment aspect, but I highly doubt there's an "ah-ha" moment in The Master that I missed which would seal the deal for what it all means.

Harsh criticism aside, I can definitely tip my hat to the performances of the lead actors.  Whether he's really crazy or really acting, Joaquin Phoenix is something to see.  His polarizing portrayal of this lost man is something that I cannot picture another actor (Jeremy Renner was initially attached to play Freddie) of his age and caliber equally achieving.  Whether he's really serious or really focused, Philip Seymour Hoffman is also extremely good as "The Master."  His enigmatic presence and easy-going charisma fit the qualities needed to play a man armed with snake oil to pour down people's ears.  Both men have to be considered legitimate Oscar contenders for the lead and supporting male acting awards.  Not to be lost among the men, Amy Adams does a fine job as the hardened and dominant wife.  You can definitely expect her name to be on a short list with four other peers next February as well.

After the performances, the only other compliment I can give is the look and style of the film.  Like all of Anderson's films, it's a flawlessly sharp looking work of cinema.  Without a doubt, it completely nails the 1950s period details.  The costume and production are all top-notch and layer The Master with a seamlessly created setting away from the present.  The odd musical score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood is a little too much, but the first-rate epic 65mm cinematography of relative newcomer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. saturates the screen with huge imagery to explore.  

The Master, like There Will Be Blood, will be remembered and nominated in technical categories like these to match its acting talent.  Still, the film's technical panache and courageous acting can't save a bomb of a plot.  I understand that movies like The MasterMelancholia, The Tree of Life, or There Will Be Blood are allowed to be difficult challenges to comprehend.  Good films are allowed to do that, but, in the end you have to have a point and purpose.  Those two elements are hard to find among the ambitious ideas of Paul Thomas Anderson's film.  Just because you try to be weird and challenge doesn't make you great.  It just makes you weird.

LESSON #1: THE REAL TROUBLES OF POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER--  The scary thing about this is that Freddie had PTSD even before his time serving in World War II.  Repeated failures with jobs and women afterwards only make it worse.  He's got more issues than Sports Illustrated and it's a sad thing to watch.

LESSON #2: BEING ABOVE ANIMALISTIC DEVICES-- Beyond the PTSD, Freddie is a socially-inept, rage-driven, immature, and untamed "animal" in many ways.  We witness his actions early on and Dodd catches on to this.  He seeks to train Freddie to rise and evolve past those crude tendencies.  The task is not an easy one and Peggy and others question if Freddie is beyond help.

LESSON #3: THE APPEAL OF INDEPENDENT FOLLOWINGS AND CULTS-- Much is being made publicly about The Master's supposedly thinly-veiled strikes at Scientology.  Like all religion, to each his own, making that discussion fit for another time than a movie review.  Still, the film and its detailed scenes of methodology and indoctrination with Freddie and Lancaster pull the curtain back at the appeal and draw that followings and cults have for the lost and eager.  There's definitely a gap between the gullibility, skepticism, and blind commitment.

LESSON #4: DEFENDING YOUR BELIEFS-- No matter what belief, deity, religion, path, faith, or cause you hold dear and commit to, you are bound to experience a few challenges with your choice or calling.  No matter what, on some level, you will have to defend your beliefs to those who don't understand, question, devalue, or oppose your doctrine.  How you defend yourself not only defines your chosen belief system, but also you as a person.