The Master * * * * *

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Director: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, David Warshofsky, Lena Endre, Madisen Beaty, Kevin J. O’Connor, Ambyr Childers.

Paul Thomas Anderson has only done a handful of films since his 1997 directorial debut “Hard Eight” but has he really got anything more to prove after such strong and consistent deliveries? Maybe only one thing… that he can keep up the very high standard he has set himself. If “The Master” is anything to go by, then it looks like his reputation is more than secure.

World War II has now ended and the troops are sent back home to adjust to civilised society. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of these men. He’s also one that finds it hard to readjust and relies heavily on alcohol, eventually drifting from place to place and unable to hold down gainful employment. He is given another chance at life, though, when he happens to stumble upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the charismatic leader of a cult.

Anderson’s film’s certainly seem to have matured over the years. To go from his colourful and riotously entertaining second film “Boogie Nights” to the epic and Oscar winning “There Will Be Blood” is quite a leap in style and substance. His films always seem to have the recurring theme of a tortured protagonist and this is no different. It shares more in common with the aforementioned latter film, though, in terms of it’s depth and cerebral approach and it’s depiction of a struggling, disreputable man, challenging the religious beliefs of another. What else this has in common is Anderson’s ability to bring out the best in his actors. There are three searing, Oscar nominated, central performances from Hoffman as the confident and charismatic Lancaster Dodd and an emaciated, animal-like, Phoenix who looks unbearably uncomfortable as his frustrated protΓ©gΓ© Freddie Quell. Phoenix undergoes a complete transformation here and his performance is nothing short of miraculous – if he wasn’t up against Daniel Day-Lewis for the Oscar, he might just have snapped one up for this. On the side lines and lurking in the background, we also have Amy Adams who gives a muted but very powerful performance as Dodd’s committed, Machiavellian, wife Peggy. In many ways, she is the driving force behind her husband and far more influential and conniving than is recognised. It’s not just the actors that grab your attention, though, I found every single scene of this film a work of art. The production design is flawless and the recreation of 1950’s america is captured in it’s entirety. Shot in 65mm by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr, this film captures the minutest details of the time. Anderson is also in no rush, emulating masterful directors before him like Scorsese, Kubrick and David Lean. The patience and respect he shows his actors and the confidence he has in his scenes to work themselves out is a skill beyond his relatively young years. Like the domineering character Lancaster Dodd himself, Anderson also has you completely within his grasp. The film is as hypnotic and confident as it is domineering, never giving you a moment to relax and instilling a genuine feeling of unease throughout. There’s a raw, realistic, fly-on-the-wall vibe that permeates every second. It felt like I was involved in every scene and that’s, simply, down to the flawless direction and performances. They are stuff that movie gold is made from.
In terms of the story; obvious comparisons with the belief in Scientology will be made. However, it’s never called by name, referred only as “The Cause” but there’s no doubt that this is the very sect or cultish behaviour that Anderson is driving at and Lancaster Dodd is certainly an embodiment of it’s founder L. Ron Hubbard.
This understanding of such a confidence-trickster persona was witnessed before in Anderson’s “Magnolia” where Tom Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey is a misogynist, egotistical, self-help guru who does seminars and talks on how men can “tame” women and turn them into their “sperm receptacle”. He’s a detestable person that operates on the weaknesses of others. Ironically, Cruise is a well known believer in Scientology, in his personal life, and the mirroring of that character and his domineering behaviour is reflected in both the main characters from this film: Dodd has the ability to convince and Quell has a deviant sexual side. This would be a debate for another time but I couldn’t help but notice and wonder about it’s significance.
Despite the abundance of quality throughout, though, the film does have it’s faults; as it progresses it’s ambiguity increases and it never answers the overriding question as to why Dodd is so fascinated in Quell. It leaves us only with the suspicion that they are very similar people in search of something in their lives and it would seem that this should suffice. As a result, when The Master should really be ending with aplomb, it stumbles in it’s climax and also delivers a bizarre and obscure musical passage of “A Slow Boat to China”. Let’s just say that I think that Anderson was going for another grandstanding, memorable ending like the ‘revelation’ of Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights“; the raining frogs from “Magnolia” or, most of all, the “I drink your milkshake” ferocity of “There Will Be Blood“. Simply, it doesn’t quite match those but it doesn’t matter as it recovers from this particular mishap. Then it dawned on me just how effective this was; it stuck in my mind enough for my concentration to be broken. It was the first time it had been throughout the entire film and it was at this point that I realised that I had been completely captivated. I didn’t fully understand the character of Freddie Quell but I did understand his struggle and the sheer magnetism he was up against.

Original and unrestrained filmmaking of this sort has to be applauded. I’m absolutely astounded that this film and the director were omitted from the Academy Award nominations. Another major omission was from Anderson himself; he seems to have forgotten the continuation of his movie’s title. It should have read: “The (Near) Master(piece)“.

Mark Walker

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60 Responses to “The Master * * * * *”

  1. Nice. I don’t think this man has made a bad movie at all, for me his films are an event! I couldn’t get to see The Master due it’s limited release at the cinema but I will surely be taking it in soon and I will look forward to reviewing it myself. Very nice review sir and revisiting what we talked about last week – relevant and concise, as much as you can in the difficult task of writing a Thomas Anderson review, so you have done a bang up job! πŸ™‚ (I still haven’t found the balls to review TWBB). 5 stars is rare these days but I have no doubt it deserves it.

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    • I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about Punch Drunk Love but I could still appreciate the change of direction that PTA took. It wasn’t a bad film but a slightly lesser standard. It’s hard for me to pick a favourite of his, though. Such a quality director.
      Many have criticised this but it’s a film that requires patience. A lot of people found it dull but I found it completely intriguing. I did try to keep concise here but this review did go on a bit longer than most.Thanks a lot man. Hope you like it as much as I did.

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      • …a lot of people then need to re-evaluate their expectations of a Thomas Anderson film, patience is a virtue and a prerequisite for any of his movies. whether I or they find it crap or awesome is viewers choice and everyone is entitled, but I know i will have to be patient not matter what.
        say about 900-1000 words? getting a review under that for PTA is tough. I will challenge myself to do the same, but not confident. We will see when I review it. Kudos to you Mark for taking it on a PTA review πŸ™‚

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      • Thanks again man. Patience is certainly a virtue with his film’s. If you invest it, it will pay dividends. This did for me.
        Like you say, it’s hard tackling a PTA film. I reviewed Boogie Nights a while ago and then went back and edited the whole thing. I think I need to go back and do more edits.

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      • never gooooooo back…!!! πŸ™‚ I know I will love it, certainly since I now appreciate Hoffman more than ever before after watching and reviewing Doubt. Always liked him but this one did it for me. Anyway, I digress. what were we saying about concise? Nice one Mark.

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      • I had to go back man! My first review of Boogie Nights was complete mince. I spoke more about the plot and less about the film overall. I still feel I haven’t done it justice.

        Always been a fan of Hoffman. He’s one of my top five actors and always enjoy his performances. He’s superb in The Master but the film belongs to Phoenix.

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  2. You know Mark we usually agree on almost everything, this not so much. I loved the acting and cinematography but the story was far too dull to keep me interested. Great write up regardless.

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  3. Well then. I’ve read some lackluster reviews for the film (some people knowing it’s good but just not great) and even on the DVD Court we all gave it a rent. Since then I have rented it, but it’s been sitting on the table because I’m not to enthusiastic to watch it but after reading this review, I think I need to put it in sooner than later (hey oh!). Great review Mark.

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    • Cheers Nick! I noticed that everyone put it down for a rent on your DVD court. I disagree with them all. LOL.

      I can accept that it’s not for everyone but I thought it to be a fantastic film that had me gripped. Get it on man. Get it on! πŸ˜‰

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  4. Excellent post, You’ve convinced me this is a must see.

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  5. Superb review Mark. It seems for every 1 or 2 star review this film gets, it gets a 5 star to go with it. I haven’t seen this yet but am very much looking forward to it just to see what all the fuss is about!

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    • I suppose 1 or 2 star reviews and the occasional 5 star shows you how polarising this film is. I can understand people not taking to it but I’m a big fan of Anderson’s film’s and it worked (almost entirely) for me. I seen faults but still couldn’t give it any less than a top score.

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  6. Ok, I’m ready for February to end! We haven’t been on the same page with hardly any movie this month bro! LOL!

    Fantastic review and another splendid defense of a film your a fan of. Now here comes old gloomy, ‘rain on the parade’ Keith. I liked this movie but really didn’t love it like I hoped. I really thought PTA’s film wasn’t nearly as weighty as it attempts to be. In fact I would argue that there really isn’t a whole lot going on at all and I tended to get lost in that rut.

    Now let me clarify, there is a lot that I liked in the film including the cinematography and even more the incredible acting. But I thought PTA made Phoenix’s Freddie character too uneven. His mental illness from the war and his alcohol dependency was very well done. His sex addiction seemed to be all over the place and often times distracting. It wasn’t Phoenix because his performance was amazing. I put it on the writing.

    Anyway, I fully realize I’m in the minority AGAIN. I’m starting to think I need a slap on the head sometimes. My wife would certainly volunteer! πŸ˜‰ Keep up the tremendous work bro!

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    • Haha! February has been a month of disagreements between us. Don’t worry though, I have one coming up that I know you’ll agree on.

      I can understand your finding Phoenix’s character all over the place. I did too, to begin with but upon reflection that was entirely the point. He needed to find himself and stand on his own two feet. That was a nigh on impossible task for someone like him. There are many subtleties that course through him also though and Phoenix was absolutely superb. It’s actually one of my favourite screen performances from any actor over the years. Powerful stuff.

      Get your wife to give you a slap for me as well, will you? LOL.
      I joke of course. I appreciate your opinion on this bro. I suggest you try it again though. It’s definitely a film that requires at least two viewings.

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      • You made me think of something that really points to Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliance. You’re right, Phoenix is superb. But have you noticed that many actors and actresses are brilliant in PTA’s films? He really has a way of writing intriguing characters and putting the perfect person in place to bring them to life.

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      • Absolutely man! I skippered over that point in my review, that he draws out excellent performances from his cast. He seems to always get it spot on. Even Wahlberg (who I normally don’t like) was superb in Boogie nights.

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  7. Finally Mark you have singled out the power of the Peggy chararacter Dodd’s wife as the brains behind the man. I wonder if she wasn’t pulling his strings. SPOILER ALERT- Also there is the question of Dodd sexually which I found intriguing. Not an easy movie but that a what makes it stand out

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    • Thanks man! Peggy was certainly a very powerful presence throughout the film and Adams nailed her character.

      SPOILER ALERT!

      I totally agree on your views about Dodd’s sexuality. There were certainly moments that eluded to it. This is could have been the reason that he was taken by Quell and his sexual deviancy or prowess.

      Thanks for stopping by and making some good points.

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  8. Hi praise buddy!! πŸ™‚

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  9. Great write up, Mark!

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  10. Nice review. I agree, this was not only my favorite film of 2012, but has become one of my favorite films ever. I love pretty much all of Anderson’s work, and this was just an amazing movie. I agree with your statement how it reflects the films of Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese and I can also see some parts that reminded me of David Lynch’s work. I’ll be buying the DVD soon and will post a second review of the film.

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    • Sorry man, I just realised that I missed your comment there. Thankfully i tracked back, though. Glad to hear your’re a fan. I was left astounded by this film. I didn’t think it ended as strongly as it could have but thats just looking for fault. Couldn’t get it or the performances out of my head for ages after it. Its a special piece of work.

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      • *SPOILERS*

        I thought the ending was very unique and I feel Anderson wants the audience to question whether Freddy left the Cause or not. The other day a friends of mine told me he thought the ending of There Will Be Blood was a dream as everything went perfectly for Daniel at the end. PTA is a fantastic director who really makes some of the most thought-provoking films today.

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      • **SPOILERS**

        Yeah, I wasn’t sure whether Freddie left or not either but I took it to be that his character actually had made some progress in his life and did leave. However, he seemed quite cut up which lead to the ambiguity on whether Freddie and Lancaster had possible sexual feelings for one another? I’d need to see it again but it’s definitely got me thinking.

        Great point on There Will be Blood. From what i remember, that could make sense. That’s another I’m dying to see again as well.

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  11. Sadly, I have yet to see this yet but hope to catch it soon since it is now available on DVD. I love me some Joaquin Phoenix, I even enjoyed his widely panned I’m Still Here. πŸ˜‰

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    • If you love you some Joaquin Phoenix then his performance here should be more than satisfactory Adam. It’s his finest to date and even though he didn’t get the Oscar, this is certainly worthy of an award. I don’t see how he can ever better his show here. Can’t say whether you’ll like the film but there’s no denying the actors.

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  12. ray brayne Says:

    As much as I enjoyed “The Master”, and I did, I missed the message. Maybe there wasn’t any message. SPOILER—-
    I think the emptiness of the cult is the message. “He’s making it up as he goes along” Dodd’s son says. In other words, Dodd doesn’t know what it’s all about either. The reason Dodd and Quell connect is they’re both lost and looking for meaning. That Dodd, without his wife and the Cause, would be Quell. Ultimately the Cause is not enough for Quell but a woman seems to be, or could be. I think it’s possible to extrapolate hidden meaning here but why bother. The journey alone is worth the trip. Just don’t drink the torpedo fuel!

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    • That’s exactly how I took it to be Ray. They were both very similar people in search of something in their lives. There’s was an emptiness and longing for something. It’s never fully explained but Dodd seen himself in Quell. It’s definitely ambiguous but like you say, the journey is so damn good it doesn’t even matter whether it fully explained of not. Ambiguity isn’t always a bad thing. I absolutely fucking loved this film. Cheers Ray!

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  13. Hi Mark, great review, man. Glad to hear you enjoyed this one as much as I did — the best of 2012, in my opinion. Can’t wait to watch it again now that it’s on DVD.

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    • Hey Eric! If I remember rightly, yours was the very first review I had ever read on the film. It’s the best of 2012 for me also. Towards the end of the year and over the last few weeks I’ve seen some outstanding film’s but The Master is the one that has stayed with me the most. I yet to see Lincoln but I doubt it can surpass this.

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  14. Thomas Priday Says:

    Nice review, Mark. Definitely deserved this sort of praise.

    I think I liked it a little more than you. Well, unless you’ve also put it in your top 10. πŸ˜›

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    • Thanks Thomas. It would seem that you did like a little more than me. LOL
      It’s not in my top ten but it’s definitely a film that has potential to make – once I’ve seen it again. I did love it though. Best film of 2012 for sure.

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      • Thomas Priday Says:

        Strange thing is, I watched an edited version; so I have an extra 20 or so minutes of the original to see, plus 20 minutes of deleted scenes in the Blu-ray. I can’t wait!

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      • You have treats ahead of you sir! Treats I say. I haven’t seen the extended Blu-ray but I will at one point. I could easily have went an extra half hour of it, at least.

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      • Thomas Priday Says:

        I’m not sure if you’ve reviewed There Will be Blood, but do you prefer it?

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      • I haven’t reviewed There Will Be Blood yet and that’s a great question. I’m not sure which one I prefer. I’d need to revisit them both. That’s a really tough call.

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  15. Great review! I liked the film but I thought it was a bit light on the story and I wish it focused more on Dodd than Freddie, I found his whole journey to be much less intriguing than the Cause and Dodd and Peggy’s marriage.

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    • Thanks Sati. I actually enjoyed the dynamic between all three of the characters. Mostly it was the intensity of the scenes that really struck me, though. Its certainly ambiguous and that could be construed as a poor or light story but it worked for me.

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      • Oh the dynamics between them were great, I just wish Dodd was the protagonist πŸ™‚ I felt there could be more to his character but the way it played out here wasn’t that bad because there was a lot of mystery to him.

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      • I see where your coming from but I think if Dodd where the protaganist, it would have revealed too much about him and his motivations. I thought it was a wise move to him viewed from an outsider as it created more of an enigma about him and The Cause.

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  16. Great review Mark. Not Anderson’s best, but it’s a flick that always kept me watching, always interested, and always intrigued. The guy deserves some major kudos for that at least.

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    • He does deserve kudos Dan. This film had me gripped throughout. A lot of people have claimed that it’s slow and tedious but I thought it was quite the opposite. Film of the year for me.

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  17. Could have sworn I commented on this. Came back to check your reply! LOL

    Anyways, this IS a near masterpiece, yeah. And youre right, if Phoenix hadnt been up against Daniel Day Lewis, he probably would have won.

    This is a brilliant film, and I cant wait to buy it on blu and investigate all the hidden meanings and themes!

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    • LOL No worries my man. You’re here now. Glad to hear you’re in agreement. It was an absolutely outstanding film. I can understand the gripes that people had with it but for me it was a work of art.

      We had many a discussion on how poor a year 2012 was for me Fogs but I have to eat my words. The year finished with a whole host of superb film’s and this was the icing on the cake. This should have won the best picture award. Or at the very least, grab a nomination. It’s criminal that it wasn’t even included.

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  18. Great review, Mark! You know I didn’t love this one but still found many good things in it, particularly the acting and cinematography.

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    • Thanks Fernando. I know you didn’t rate it very highly but I thought it was superb. Agreed on the acting and cinematography. I’ve not seen Lincoln yet but I’m flabbergasted as to how Phoenix can put a show on like this and still not win an award for it. He must raging.

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  19. Well, as you already know we agree on this one, once again! I’m afraid that I haven’t watched as much by this director as you have. I remember loving Magnolia a lot, but that’s about all I remember from it. And I haven’t seen There Will be Blood. This movie certainly inspires me to go for some of his backlog.

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    • You certainly should work your way through his backlog Jessica. Anderson is one if the finest director’s around at present. There Will be Blood and Boogie Nights are exceptionally good. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed and I’d be very interested to hear your take on them.

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  20. laura smith Says:

    Repeated viewing gives a lot of insight into this film. If you take the time to read other reviews – it is amazing all the different and interesting takes people get from this movie. If PTA writes a grocery list and Phoenix and Hoffman read it aloud, I will be first in line to buy a ticket. Thanks for your thoughtful review.

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    • I’ve not yet managed another viewing Laura but it’s one I definitely will be visiting many times again. It was my favourite film from last year. There’s more I’d like to add and probably will do a revisit review when the time comes. Thanks for dropping in. And I’d buy a ticket to watch Phoenix and Hoffman read a grocery list too. πŸ˜‰ Two outstanding performers.

      Like

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