September 14, 2012



THE MASTER:  Worth A Ticket – The Title Describes the Filmmaker

Our shorthand for describing movie directors, even great ones, is to compare them to other filmmakers.  So Quentin Tarantino is Sergio Leone plus half a dozen (at least) obscure exploitation and art-house directors, Soderbergh is Godardian, Scorsese recreates the aesthetic of Michael Powell, Christopher Nolan is the David Lean of superhero movies, and so on.  Paul Thomas Anderson, though, may have started out Altmanesque with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but he’s become increasingly sui generis, forging a new path with every new film.  No one had ever made (or seen) a movie like Punch-Drunk Love before it existed, or There Will Be Blood, or now his new work THE MASTER.

On the level of plot, not all that much happens in the course of The Master, and what there is can be explained fairly clearly.  Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II vet, is a mess when the war ends (and probably was one before it started).  He’s an alcoholic of a particularly serious kind, one who drinks his own concoctions made of paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, and any industrial or medical chemicals with an alcohol base.  He has an uncontrollable violent streak, can’t hold down a job, and his unrealistically romantic view of women is matched only by his disdain for them.  One night, in a drunken haze, he wanders onto a boat lent to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with passengers including Dodd’s pregnant second or later wife Peggy (Amy Adams), his grown son Val (Jesse Plemons), daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) and her fiance Clark (Rami Malek), and what Freddie comes to learn are Dodd’s followers.  As everyone knows by now, Dodd is inspired by L. Ron Hubbard (although only in the broadest biographical sense), and he preaches a self-made religion he calls The Cause that resembles Scientology.  In The Cause, participants are asked a series of repetitive, probing questions about their lives and insecurities in a fashion midway between cross-examination and interrogation, until they recall some awful event from their lives that becomes a springboard to “memories” of their past selves.  Dodd claims that with the insights gained in these sessions from existences lived thousands and millions years beore, cancer will be cured, war will end and the human race will be saved.

Dodd is a charlatan, but a charismatic, paternal one, and Freddie, all alone in the world, is powerfully drawn to him.  Dodd, for his part, finds Freddie exciting and dangerous.  The bulk of The Master is devoted to the time the two of them spend together and what drives them apart.  But that makes the narrative sound much more linear than it is, as very little about either character is ever explained straight out, and we must make leaps based on their behavior.  Dodd wants Freddie to be his surrogate son, but in order for that to happen, he has to break Freddie, not just of his alcoholism and violent behavior, but his will.  And Freddie both very much wants and can’t endure to be broken.  (For that matter, it’s not clear if Dodd would still want a broken Freddie, since it’s the younger man’s utter lack of control that makes him fascinating to Dodd.)  Meanwhile, Peggy watches both of them, seemingly placid and soft-spoken, but more implacable than the two men combined.

One can make any number of interpretations about what The Master is “really” saying, and any of them may be at least in part correct.  One point that’s interesting to note is how specifically the story echoes the pop culture of 1950, the year that it takes place.  The relationship between Freddie and Dodd is a messier, more elliptical version of the bond between the John Ireland and Broderick Crawford characters–an initially worshiping acolyte to a corrupt politician–in the film of All the King’s Men (the characters are significantly different in the underlying novel), which won the Best Picture Oscar in that year.  Freddie is a close forebear of the unsettled, wandering protagonists of On the Road (like the Kerouac character, he travels from the east to pick lettuce in California), which took place in exactly that period.   Anderson may seem to be telling a very odd and particular story, but he’s also recounting American history about the immediately post-World War II era, its desperate search for spirituality, and the pain and corruption that ran through both the grasping and lost parts of that generation.

Anderson is in complete control of his technique, and The Master feels like it’s precisely the movie he wanted to make, although his style will drive some viewers crazy.  At least for now, he’s not interested in sweeping audiences along with melodrama and emotion as he did in Boogie Nights and even Magnolia: his pacing is slow, with some extremely long dialogue scenes (OK, here’s one director-to-director comparison:  some of the duologues between Freddie and Dodd are near-Kubrickian in their unhurried carefulness).  The editing is credited to Leslie Jones and Peter NcNulty, but this is the same style Anderson used in There Will Be Blood.  Some will find the pace hypnotic; others will want to nap.  Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (he’s been working on Coppola’s recent films) shot much of the time with 65mm film, and especially when projected in 70mm, the use of deep colors and shadows is frequently awesome, a silent argument against digital imagery.  Jonny Greenwood, who composed the music for There Will Be Blood, has contributed another jagged, astonishing score, one that often seems to be broadcasting from inside Freddie Quale’s brain.

Then there is the acting.  One doesn’t even know how to describe what Joaquin Phoenix does in this film–he seems to have reconstructed the bones of his body to create a hunched, concave form for Freddie to inhabit.  People make jokes about actors who stay in character after the camera stops rolling, but watching Phoenix here, one would be shocked if he were able to get out of the character, so deeply has it settled into every line on his face.  Hoffman has a more conventionally theatrical role in Dodd, but he’s brilliant as well, playing every chord of human behavior that Dodd uses to manipulate others, but with secrets of his own that he may not even admit to himself.  And although her part is much smaller than those of the two men, no one should underestimate what Amy Adams does in this film, effortlessly dominating both these spectacular actors whenever the moment calls for it, and never resorting to histrionics in order to do it

The Master is a serious, uncompromising work of film art, and it definitely won’t be for everyone (if you thought There Will Be Blood was too slow-moving, find something else to see).  Harvey Weinstein takes a lot of grief for the conventional Oscar bait he distributes each year, but if he can get mainstream audiences in to see this one, he deserves his statues.  This much is clear:  the film, like its director, is unique.  There won’t be another movie this year remotely like it.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."