What’s wrong with ‘The Master’ is explained in ‘The Master’

MasterAt the risk of coming across as too stupid to understand “The Master,” well, I guess I’m just too stupid to understand “The Master.” And maybe that’s a good thing. 

It’s not like the movie’s completely naked, but it falls several pieces of clothes shy of a full wardrobe. 

Starting promisingly and populated by three performances worthy of awards contention and compelling individual scenes, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest opus ultimately devolves into a mix of obfuscation and pointlessness. It’s possible that was the point, to echo the obfuscation and pointlessness of the cultish Cause depicted in the film. But that’s a point that, despite the cinematic artistry, mostly feels like a waste of my time. 

Protagonist Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is captured in the midst of a meandering, mostly fruitless un-hero’s journey in which title character and Cause leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays with him like a psychotic cat plays with a ball of yarn. That manipulative people can wreak havoc on the lives of vulnerable folk is not news. At the same time, it’s not even clear that this is a lifechanging experience for Freddie. The flawed Walter Salles picture “On the Road,” based on the Jack Kerouac masterpiece, provides an alternate path to much the same, arguably nihilistic end – had Freddie run into Dean Moriarty, the result would have been little different. The Cause, if you will, has no effect.

At one point, Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons) points out the mostly obvious fact that Dodd is making things up as he goes along.  Except for his willingness to embrace the ride, I identify with that character. It gets a little too meta to think about an ostensibly fictional work in this fashion, but if Anderson had simply been making things up as he went along, would the end result have changed? If the ultimate lesson is the emptiness of the charade, how much does it matter what happens in each scene?  

I’m haunted by the number of responses to “The Master” I’ve read since its initial screenings that said they needed to see the film again. I get that they think each successive viewing will yield a deeper understanding or appreciation. But to me, that’s discouraging evidence of the very thing the film mocks, the idea that a creator can use language and image to convey the impression of substance when mostly, all you’re seeing is style. 

I’m not convinced that you can fully appreciate “The Master” if you leave beholden to it. 


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  1. Mills Samuel says:

    i’m glad i read this. i too was confused about the lack of anything important happening in the film. nothing happened really. i at first thought that Dodd and Quell were on the boat during the entire movie and that they were drunk on the toxic alcohol and sharing sort of a mutual hallucination during amateur psychotherapy. THAT would have been a cool movie IMO, but no…we get “story telling” the old fashioned way…straight forward, slow, and boring. i do think it’s Anderson’s weakest movie to date.
    i think people who say they loved the film are overzealous film geeks (or unpopular critics) who are too pompous to say the truth. they think if they say they loved a confusing film, people will think they are smart and more analytical. how can you like a film where nothing happens? Gus Van Sant got away with it a few times (Gerry, Last Days), but Anderson cannot get away with it here. in fact, i bet Gus Vann Sant could have done a better job with this material.
    the score by Jonny Greenwood is remarkable though, as expected.

  2. I had much the same response to this film, it is well made with good performances, but it lacks a hero or even anyone to root for. I can admit it’s good qualities, but I found watching it unfulfilling. Great review.

  3. Jon Weisman says:

    Thanks for the comments. I think the narrative is quite straight-forward, but I’m not sure there’s a ton of “there” there, and I also think it achieves that straightforwardness in part by having characters behave in illogical ways to serve the needs of a given plot point.

  4. I really liked this review Jon – I personally LOVED The Master (I think it’s the best film I’ve seen this year by a long shot – impeccable film making on a technical level with some of the finest performances I’ve seen in years and a jaw dropping score), but your point about PTA perhaps mocking the search for deeper meaning in cults/religion by creating a narrative that leads people to think its deeper then it might actually be is an observation I’ve yet to see pointed out. I found the narrative to be more straight forward than most people think – they let cryptic film making and subject matter confuse them into thinking something is complicated.

  5. RS says:

    I have yet to encounter a single person that ‘got it’ even huge Paul Thomas Anderson fans. (And all my friends are artsy film students). The film is a mess, the producers should have reined in the director and given the film you know, a plot! Not sure what the reviewer lemmings on RottenTomatoes where thinking with a 85%.

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