Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Sexual Content, Graphic Nudity and Language
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Laura Dern & Christopher Evan Welch
By every conceivable measure, I thought I would love or (at least) like Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER. I’ve had the movie recommended to me by numerous cinephiles. I’ve liked every Anderson film that I’ve seen thus far to some extent (including the strange INHERENT VICE). I also love films that dig at really controversial and touchy topics. THE MASTER had many things going for it, but left me feeling purely apathetic towards it. This film definitely has some fantastic qualities, but enough mediocre ones to leave it as a middle-of-the-road experience for me.
WWII has ended and veteran Freddie Quell is struggling to adapt to post-war America. In coping with his traumatic wartime experiences, Freddie has become a raging alcoholic with a sex addiction. Moving from one failed job to another, Freddie winds up as a stowaway on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd. Dodd claims to be a philosopher, a nuclear physicist, a writer, a doctor, and a man. He’s leading a new religious movement known as “The Cause” and soon has a fascinated Freddie more than a little interested in helping out this philosophical “genius” with his good work. As The Cause keeps moving forward, Freddie begins to realize that this new religion might be a cult. This shell-shocked veteran turned follower is left with experiencing a lot of conflicting emotions and saddled with some tough decisions to make.
THE MASTER has stunning cinematography. Anderson brought this story to the screen using 65mm film and that old-school technique is fantastic to see in this new age of mostly digital filmmaking. The musical score accompanying the film is haunting and beautiful. It makes the whole film seem a lot better than it actually is when you slice down to the nitty-gritty of the plot (but more on that in a moment). There are also parallels to Scientology that have already been pointed out by many. These supposed coincidences are impossible not to notice, though Anderson denies that this movie was inspired by that group. Dodd is a stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard and the ludicrous claims of The Cause (mentally time-travelling and curing cancer through sheer will) mirror the same level of insane faux reasoning of Scientology’s beliefs. Aside from specific comparisons to Scientology, THE MASTER has a lot to say about religion in general and not much of it is nice. However, I felt that more time could have been dedicated to this commentary that’s pretty much abandoned by the closing credits.
Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver fearless performances in their roles as protégé and master. Phoenix convinces you of his ill-tempered former sailor with a whole lot of baggage, while Hoffman is simply amazing as Dodd. They sell these characters as real people, but there’s just not a whole lot of empathy that can be given towards them. As sick as it may sound, I felt like AMERICAN PSYCHO, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and (most recently) NIGHTCRAWLER did a great job of putting you inside the head of a lunatic. You may not have liked them, but you could probably relate to them in some unfathomable, unexplainable way. THE MASTER didn’t compel me in that sense. I really couldn’t care less about either Freddie or Dodd. The performances are great, but the characters are far too distanced from the audience. That may sound like an oxymoron, but that’s exactly how it felt. Amy Adams is rather underused as Dodd’s wife. For the most part, this is a two-person show.
My biggest problems with THE MASTER are the messy narrative and long-winded running time. Paul Thomas Anderson has stated in recent interviews that he doesn’t care so much about having a plot in his films anymore and only wants to leave long-lasting feelings with the viewer. While that’s apparent in the recent INHERENT VICE (which didn’t make a lick of sense after about 40 minutes), it’s far more obvious in THE MASTER. There are long stretches of this film that didn’t seem to be relying on a story whatsoever, but instead on these characters. That’s not necessarily a bad way of approaching things, but it becomes a problem when the film gets boring. THE MASTER got dull in many spots throughout its running time of over two hours.
THE MASTER left me with no strong reactions and not much story to hold on to. Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmography is filled with unusual and original creations. THE MASTER is definitely unusual and original, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good. I didn’t care for the lack of a working plot and the running time was far too long. The characters felt oddly disconnected, in spite of phenomenal performances. There are definitely people who will adore THE MASTER for a variety of reasons (including the ones that I’ve listed as negatives), but this film just wasn’t for me.