Sunday, August 26, 2012

Review: The Master

Here we go.

Just over a week ago, I had the chance to see an early screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth movie, The Master, projected in 70mm at Chicago's Music Box theater. I have been trying to process my thoughts about the movie since then.

I have been mostly unsuccessful.

What follows isn't a traditional review. I'm not ready to write that, and you guys, having not yet seen the movie, probably aren't interested in reading it. These are some thoughts, mostly unrelated, totally unorganized. Much of this is still being worked through even as I type it.

Note: I was very careful not to include any SPOILERS, barely even discussing the plot or any specifics about the movie. However, if you want to go into seeing it without knowing ANYTHING, wait to read the review until after it comes out. But I think this review is totally safe.
  • If I sound schizophrenic -- or waaay too confused -- in my reaction to the movie, know that I am not alone. Following the screening, every critic in attendance was basically tweeting out "I need to see that again before I can really make my mind up about what I saw." Maybe this is because the movie really is layered and obtuse and requires multiple viewings to unpack everything it has to offer. Or maybe it's a case of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, but none of us are ready to accept that. After all, this is PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON. There has to be more to it, right?
  • This is my problem. I can't quite figure out what the movie is about. I could recount the plot, but that's not the same thing. Here goes anyway: Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Sutton, who served in the Navy during WWII and is, to put it bluntly, all fucked up. He drinks too much. He gets in fights. He can't keep a job. He meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a religion called The Cause. What follows is the developing relationship between the two men, and an attempt to use The Cause as a way of "curing" Freddie.
  • For some reason, the movie became known as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Scientology movie" very early on. It really isn't. Yes, there is a religion that seems to be based on Scientology. Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman is playing a character that appears to be at least partly based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But The Master is not a takedown nor an exposé on Scientology. It's more concerned with the dynamic between the two men at its center: one who seems totally in control (not just of himself but of his "flock," who actually do refer to him as "master") and who understands not just this world, but also past and future worlds. The other is a fucking tornado of rage and emotion, whose issues extend back much earlier than the war.
  • If you have ANY WAY of seeing the movie projected in 70mm, by all means DO IT. If there's a theater within an hour of your place of residence, make the trip. Hell, if there's a theater within three hours of where you live, make the trip. This is unlikely, as there are VERY FEW theaters that will have a 70mm run of the movie. That's because there are very few theaters still equipped to show 70mm. Even the Music Box said they will most likely not be showing the movie in 70mm when it's released later in September (though they did say they may do a 70mm run later this Fall). This is a shame. More than any IMAX presentation, more than any stupid fucking 3-D presentation (with the possible exception of Avatar), the 70mm presentation of The Master is a REVELATION. The images are so clear and beautiful that it's like seeing a movie for the first time. This sounds like hyperbole. It mostly isn't.
  • It's hard to imagine a better-acted movie coming out this year. Everyone in the movie is excellent, including Amy Adams in a role that plays both with and against her usual do-gooder typcasting in some clever ways. The Master is basically a two man show, though, and both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are crazy good. This is Joaquin Phoenix's first movie in a long time (since before his fake I'm Still Here breakdown?), and while he's always been good in everything, he's on another planet here. His performance takes a while to get used too -- it's a lot of mannered slurring and gesticulating -- but there's a scene about a third of the way through the movie in which everything comes into focus. You'll know the scene when you see it: it's the first "processing" scene, in which Hoffman asks Phoenix a series of rapid-fire questions. It's so good it's hypnotic, and it's the scene people will be talking about.
  • This is also definitely the best looking movie this year (so far). The photography is perfect. I don't know how he did it, but P.T.A. color timed the movie so that it looks exactly like a movie from the period. He does it better than I've ever seen before.
  • It's ok if The Master is not a masterpiece. Not every movie can be. Not every movie has to be. But Paul Thomas Anderson has such an incredible body of work, and has built up such a mystique around himself in the last decade that he's entering the same territory as Kubrick and Malick. There is a crazy amount of pressure and expectation that goes along with that.
  • The mention of Kubrick and Malick is not a mistake. The movie is very reminiscent of both directors' work. Don't get me wrong -- it's still clearly a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, and he has found a style that is very much his own -- but he's also a guy who has always worn his influences proudly. His earlier movies owed a great deal to other filmmakers: he had Martin Scorsese's gift for flash and for energy and for creating a perfect moment using pop songs. He had Robert Altman's gift for ensemble work and Jonathan Demme's humanity. There Will Be Blood and now The Master show P.T.A. entering a new phase of his career.

Everyone should see The Master. If you're the kind of person who loves movies and who regularly reads a movie blog, you either a) have been waiting to see this since it was first announced and hate having to wait three more weeks or b) should want to see it, because Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best filmmakers currently working (a case could be made that he's the best, but that's a different conversation) and a new movie from him -- like a new movie from any great filmmaker -- is a big deal.

When the movie is released, let's all see it and come back here to talk about it some more. It's a movie that deserves discussion. It's a beautiful movie. It's a powerful movie. It might be a brilliant movie. I'm just not sure yet.

The Master opens September 21, 2012.


  1. Oh boy. I thought I had made up my mind on this one and I then I had a BAD case of the Coming Attractions Conundrum when I saw the trailer before another movie today. P.S. A suggestion for a glossary addition: Trailerboarding - when you repeatedly see a trailer for a movie that you don't want to see (I'm looking at you The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

  2. Amazing write up Patrick! just a small note : IMHO Punch-Drunk Love marks the beginning of PTA's new phase. It's his first movie that feels totally unique.

    1. Thanks, Gabriel. I would consider Punch-Drunk Love the "bridge" movie that connects his earlier and later stuff, since I feel like I can see some of both. But that's just semantics. We both agree that these movies are awesome.

  3. You should plan another F This Movie screening for this movie.

  4. At least one theater in NYC will be showing "The Master" in 70mm. Trying to get tickets before they sell out (which they will).

  5. Saw "The Master" over the weekend in 70mm (seven bucks for matinee pricing!). Visually Patrick is right, this is a hell of a good-looking film and P.T. Anderson avoids using photography for "pretty" shots (what the bulk of movies shot in 70mm use the technology for, i.e. the "Baraka/Sansara" school of filmmaking) even though a few "cool shots" (the wake of water left by a boat, the most tense motorcycle speeding sequence I've ever seen, etc.) sneak into the mostly medium/close-up framings. Many of the shots are close-ups of faces (particularly The Masters' face) which ties up with the movie's narrative pretty well. So, yeah, 70mm, woot woot.

    Also, the TV commercial and trailer for "The Master" has lots of shots/images that are not in the movie (a shot of two people jumping off a bridge and Freddie doing gunplay in a bedroom stick out). For a typical Hollywood movie I'd expect this, but for a filmmaker as particular as P.T. Anderson it's kind-of odd.

    I never thought Anderson could top "Magnolia" as the most self-satisfying, look at this important movie I'm making nihilistic cinematic piece of shit he's ever done. He didn't, "The Master" is beter than "Magnolia" (what movie isn't? :-P) but way below "Boogie Nights" and "There Will Be Blood," which are flat-out masterpieces. "The Master's" best redeeming feature is that, like the better Kubrick movies (which seems to be the school of pretentious filmmaking P.T. is aiming for), this movie works if you see it as a very mean, dark and subversive comedy. Even the use of naked women as props just because Anderson can put them there (again, very Kubriesque) has a hilarious payoff that bookends the flick. I could say more but, like Patrick, I don't want to spoil the plot. You're better off seeing it knowing as little as possible so you can enjoy it (though 'joy' is not a word that agrees with "The Master") but the 'soundtrack working against/for the movie' technique used in "There Will Be Blood" is fleshed out even more. Nice.

    Joaquin Phoenix looks/acts like Daniel Plainview's slightly-retarded cousin and Phillips Seymour Hoffman, even at half-speed (he reacts as much or more than he being the center of attention), holds his own as the Ron L. Hubbard-type leader of a growing cult. This is the "cult" movie that I thought "Martha Marcy May Marlene" would be, so no points to P.T. for being as obvious as the smaller indie movie was daring.

    1. I'm still trying to sort out how I feel about the movie (it took me a few viewings before I was totally on board with There Will be Blood), but I think we differ on a lot of points. I don't think there's anything mean or nihilistic about The Master (or, for that matter, Magnolia AT ALL, but I don't think we're going to change each other's minds about that movie). He's calling bullshit on some systems of belief, but not in a way that's intended to make anyone look like a fool (that happened more in TWbB). I also don't think he or Kubrick are deliberately pretentious -- but that's a label that I'm trying to move away from, as it's too dismissive. Even someone like Terrence Malick, who maybe comes closest, I wouldn't call "pretentious." If nothing else, I think he really MEANS IT, even if it's not always for me.

      Glad to hear you were able to see it in 70mm, and that there were things about it that you liked. Whether or not it all works, it's good to have a movie that we're all trying to wrap our heads around, especially after a summer that didn't require much from us.

  6. Just got back from watching.

    To go along with previous comments, I'm also finding it difficult to formulate something about this other than bewilderment. There are chunks that I can't find a place for in whatever narrative there is, nor can I figure out what is at stake in those scenes, and I don't know if it stems from not having enough background knowledge, or if I wasn't paying close enough attention, or the movie was too layered and complex. I'm just totally sure about being totally confused. Multiple viewings are probably necessary, but I don't know if I want to, 70mm or no.

  7. I finally got to see THE MASTER this weekend. My first thoughts were that this film is more about themes than plot and that the filmmaking qualities are incredible. There's probably not much more to add about the acting - Phoenix and Hoffman tell the viewer so much with their eyes or just a mouth twitch... I expect nominations for them. I think I liked it more than some of you, but I totally get why it could be a film to respect without enjoying. My curiousity about what drove these two men maybe made the whole experience better for me -I don't know.

    Side note - does PTA make sure there is one big SHOUT in all of his films now? The shout is his white doves moment... or something.

  8. I saw it again and liked the movie much more the second time. I think Erika really hit it on the head that the movie is about themes and what drove the two men.


    I think the Hoffman character (and much more the Amy Adams character) were power-mad and wanted control over anything and everything, it didn't matter what the philosophy of their movement was.

    I think PSH wanted to keep Joaquin around because they were both (maybe?) alcoholics and he appreciated his company and unwavering loyalty.

    Joaquin seemed to just want a place to fit in and was willing to go along for a long while because he wanted answers for anything. I think the thing that he learns by the end of the movie is that all the mumbo-jumbo in the world was not going to mask that he messed up with the girl from his hometown and that was the real elephant in the room. He's going to be OK at the end because he brought closure to that issue and met someone new who seems to accept him (at least temporarily) for who he is.

    And yes....SHOUTING! But why at Laura Dern? That's like tripping the Snuggles bear. You just don't do that!

  9. One could easily make the case that The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson's worst film (I don't think that's the case, but I think a competent argument could be made). And even given that, it's still the most thought-provoking movie I've seen this year and the one I'll be pouring over long after the calendar has flipped.

    I bring to this discussion the same sentiments that Patrick did on his first viewing. I'm so overwhelmed by the sheer density of the experience that I'm still sorting all of my thoughts out. I'm going to see it again this weekend. For now, here be my brain droppings:

    From a narrative standpoint, I think The Master suffers from the same malaise that afflicts most movies that use a "crazy" person as their protagonist (This is to the extent that I think Freddie even IS the protagonist, which I'm not even totally certain of). Namely, it's just that the stakes can never really be that high. Here's this crazy guy, who falls in with these people who claim they can help him, and maybe it'll work, but it probably won't and he's still pretty nutso at the end of it. I'm not going to say that the story suffers because I can't "relate" to Freddie, because people who say that are the worst. But the fact that Dodd is manipulating the mind of a man who is so blatantly susceptible to mental attacks seems a little...easy?

    For whatever qualms I have with this central story conceit, The Master really soars as a kind of psychological probe of its own audience. That sounds really weird, and I'm still struggling with whether or not that's the best thing to call it. But there was something so intimate, so personal about the way Anderson filmed Freddie's "processing" that I couldn't shake the feeling that it was HAPPENING TO ME.

    If you even want to agree with me by giving Anderson enough credit that he was going for that type of effect, I suspect that will really piss you off. Like, "I thought I came here to see a good story, well told, not to have my psyche probed." And that's fair. But I think that's how far ahead of the curve Paul Thomas Anderson is as a filmmaker. His influences are well documented Godard, Altman, Malick, Kubrick get tossed around a lot, but I felt like this was the best Ingmar Bergman film Bergman never made.

    I'm not even making sense anymore. I'll check back here on Monday. The Master is a hell of a thing.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, everyone. Obviously, this is a movie that warrants discussion, if only so we can process our feelings about it. I'm not sure that my reaction has anything to do with the 'density of the experience.' I'm not really even sure how dense the movie is, to be honest. I want to give Paul Thomas Anderson the benefit of the doubt because I'm a big, big fan, but I'm not sure there's a whole lot more to the movie than there is. It was captivating while I was watching it, but I still don't know if the themes really crystallize in a way that carries much weight -- for me, at least. I know others will react differently, which is why the movie is worthwhile and deserves discussion. I'm just still not ready to heap praise all over the movie, even if there are things I know I like about it a lot. I'll take Adam's word for it and see it again before I make up my mind.

  10. What is "The Master" really about? Five Interpretations: .