The Good: Costumes, Cinematography
The Bad: Plot, Acting, Characters, Lack of spark
The Basics: The Master is P.T. Anderson’s cinematic low point.
I am a fan of P.T. Anderson’s works. In fact, I like the guy, too. I had the chance to meet him a few years back in Rochester, New York, when Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love were inducted into the permanent collection at the George Eastman House. I know I was the biggest fan of P.T. Anderson’s works at the screening and Q&A session because I was the only person who asked a question (two, actually) that could not have been asked by simply watching any of P.T. Anderson’s films with the commentary tracks on (or any of the other bonus features). It was pretty cool to stump the director of a film by asking an insightful, unexpected question.
Living in Northern Michigan, there was nowhere local that was getting P.T. Anderson’s latest film, The Master. So, as the centerpiece to my birthday celebration, my wife and I drove 282.4 miles (round trip) to go downstate to one of the theaters that was playing The Master. All of this is to explain just how much I appreciate the works of P.T. Anderson and how much I was looking forward to The Master. Only when a reader understands that about me and understands that I have not at all changed my standards to review the film, can they understand the full impact and truth behind my analysis of the experience of seeing The Master in theaters:
The flavoring on the popcorn, a bacon cheddar sprinkle on flavoring, and the orange frozen drink that tasted exactly like a creamsicle, were the high points of the film experience.
Yes, as unfortunate as it is to say, P.T. Anderson managed to make his utter dud right after one of my other favorite directors, Kevin Smith, made his big dud. Red State (reviewed here!) was a real shift in Kevin Smith’s works and it made for an abrupt change in his works, isolating much of his fan base. The Master is a similarly abrupt and disturbingly bad work by P.T. Anderson. (Terry Gilliam’s next work had better not suck, lest I lose my faith in American filmmakers altogether!)
For fans of P.T. Anderson, The Master shows some incredible departures from P.T. Anderson’s style and expertise. Unlike his prior works, the film is noticeably lacking in an immediate musical impression (Anderson frequently uses music to enhance mood and establish character aspects and conflicts that are not immediately evident) and the silence that opens the film is continued through the awkward and consistently unpleasant characters and the aimless, plotless, story. The Master lacks the strong themes, articulate dialog, interesting characters, and all-around excellence in filmmaking that one expects from P.T. Anderson.
Freddie Quell is a veteran coming out of the second World War. Pretty much a psychopath who can’t keep a job and who drinks any liquid that he comes across – fluid from bombs, photographic chemicals, etc. – Quell is having trouble adjusting to post-war life. One night, he sneaks on a ship, the boat that Lancaster Dodd and his family are traveling on. Following his daughter’s wedding on the ship, Lancaster – known as The Master to most around him – and his wife Peggy reveal that Lancaster is working on his second book and he and his followers are doing research aboard the boat.
Quell falls in with the group, becoming a de facto enforcer against those who speak out against the teachings of the Master. Struggling to quit drinking and reign in his animal impulses, Freddie finds himself in conflict with the burgeoning philosophical group. As Lancaster Dodd releases his second book, his followers and Freddie find themselves in a state of perpetual conflict.
The Master includes Anderson’s regular Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hoffman seems lost amid Anderson’s uncharacteristically droll dialogue. Lancaster Dodd hardly speaks like a human being and the lack of poetics in the script make one feel like they are listening to a composer who suddenly lost all ability to hear music. Anderson’s language has previously had a music to it, but The Master is entirely tonedeaf.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell and the entire length of The Master all I saw was Sean Penn. Phoenix is performing Sean Penn in one of Penn’s eccentric roles and he’s doing a second-rate impression. Freddie Quell is twitchy and drunk, with an incestuous past and a pedophilic desire for a local girl he left year before. Phoenix sells the role only to the extent that he gets through the part, making one believe he is actually drinking toxic beverages. But for the most part, Joaquin Phoenix plays Sean Penn playing a twitchy jerk.
Amy Adams is similarly unimpressive as Peggy, Lancaster’s wife. Very early on in the film, she presents the character in such a way that makes it clear that she is the Master, the puppeteer behind the puppet that is Lancaster.
But that simple reversal does not make The Master any more intriguing or good. Instead, the most the film has going for it is one or two stray shots (the water behind the boat at the opening and middle of the film is very pretty) and the costuming which clearly establishes the 1950s exceptionally well. The rumor surrounding The Master is that Scientologists had problems with the film because of the cultlike nature of Dodd’s works and the devotion of his followers (many of which parallel Philip K. Dick’s creation of Scientology). While some Scientologists might take issue with the idea that the author, like Lancaster Dodd, just made things up as he went along, far more offensive (I would suspect) is how the movie is just plain bad. After all, it is one thing to have one’s religion, cult, or belief system lampooned, it is entirely another to have it play a mediocre role in a terrible film with underdeveloped characters, a lousy sense of conflict, an utter lack of visual or auditory poetry, and performances that only highlight the lack of a crisp script.
For other films by P.T. Anderson, please check out my reviews of:
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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