Paul Thomas Anderson’s Epic Poem on an American Cult: “The Master” (Short Review)

Writer and Director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s latest film, The Master (2012), stars Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled man who finds a home for awhile with the leader of a movement played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. The navy veteran played by Phoenix bounces around aimlessly, apparently haunted by some mental illness, until he attaches himself to Hoffman’s character, an author who developed “The Cause” as a method he claims will help people live their lives. Although the film is fictional, many have pointed out a number of similarities between Hoffman’s character and Scientology founder and author L. Ron Hubbard, which adds an interesting layer to the film.

It is a challenging film in a number of ways, highlighted by vignettes more than a narrative story — although the movie is not without plot. Yet, as in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) that starred Daniel Day-Lewis, what one may remember most from the movie is the fine acting combined with haunting images throughout. As happens after I watch a Stanley Kubrick film, after watching The Master I keep reconstructing and re-imagining certain scenes and the way the director laid them out. Scenes like one of Phoenix stretched out on a ship above his shipmates or of Hoffman riding a motorcycle in a desert convey a certain haunting feeling that cannot be described in mere words.

Because of those images and others like them, perhaps the movie will hold up well on repeated viewings. But on my first viewing, I did find the movie watching experience a pleasant one even as I admired the film. The weakness in the movie is that pretty much all of the characters, including the Master’s wife played by Amy Adams, are not very likeable. A movie can be enjoyable and about unlikeable characters, but I might have liked the movie more with a little more information about why the characters were like they were, although there were hints that Phoenix’s character’s troubles resulted from the war. Yet, as it was, I spent 2 hours and 18 minutes with unlikeable characters, whose oddities were emphasized with a musical score of dissonant chords. I found a similar weakness in There Will Be Blood, and missed a heart that appeared in some of Anderson’s great earlier works like Boogie Nights (1997). Of course, in The Master, Anderson is trying to say something about 1950s America that would have been lost had he included likeable characters. So, I get it.

Conclusion? The Master is a very good and challenging film but not for everyone. If you are looking for a conventional story with sympathetic characters, you might want to skip this one. But if it is worth it for you to ponder scenes of chilling beauty, make sure to see this one on the big screen.

Other Reviews Because Why Should You Listen to Me?: Andrew O’Hehir at Salon has an excellent discussion of the film, praising its genius as a tale about L. Ron Hubbard’s America while thoughtfully considering its weaknesses too. Lisa Kennedy at The Denver Post says the film is both “confounding” and “magnificent.” By contrast, Cole Smiley claims “the audience is left to decide if the movie is some kind of bad joke, or an artistic project gone horribly astray.” Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an 84% critic rating and a 62% audience rating, and that disparity is not surprising considering how the challenging aspects of the film may endear critics more than most general filmgoers.

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    2 thoughts on “Paul Thomas Anderson’s Epic Poem on an American Cult: “The Master” (Short Review)”

    1. I like your brief, clear review, Jeff. I agree with you that Anderson’s earlier films had a little more heart. For me, “Hard Eight”, “Boogie Nights”, “Magnolia”, and “Punch-Drunk Love” all end on bittersweet notes; most of which hold out some hope and optimism for Anderson’s messed up characters. Anderson has definitely moved away from that kind of feel to his movies and has also moved away from making ensemble pieces.

      I’ve seen “The Master” twice. Upon first viewing, I was disappointed that the second half of the film lacked the more conventional plot structure of the first half. Seeing the movie for a second time yesterday, I had a new perspective on several of the sequences in the movie that I hadn’t thought of the first time I saw it (and made me appreciate the film overall more). It’s a strange movie and I agree that it can be unpleasant at times (Phoenix’s character is very dark), and I will definitely be interested to see how it is regarded over time.

      1. I’m glad to hear that the film held up well upon a second viewing. As I mentioned, I’d wondered what I would think if I saw the film again. It is good to hear that one might see more depth to some of the sequences in the challenging film. Because I did find the film interesting on the first viewing, I might have to give it another look in the future. Thanks for the comment.

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