‘The Master’ Review

Published 2 years ago by , Updated September 26th, 2014 at 4:04 am,

The Master Review 2012 Starring Joaquin Phoenix Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams The Master Review

The Master is nothing less than literature in movie form; a complexly layered (and often baffling) novel of a film, centered around the character of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII Naval veteran trying to find his place in the world of post-war America. Clearly disturbed (both mentally, emotionally and spiritually), Freddie floats from one menial job to another, trying to find peace, but ultimately sabotaging himself time and again through a combination of unrestrained hedonism (imbibing homemade booze, ogling every girl he can) and a violent, volatile anger that erupts at the slightest prompt.

One night, Freddie happens aboard the yacht of one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an eccentric and charismatic man who has fathered “The Cause,” a group built on radical concepts like past lives, sci-fi mythology and Freudian psychotherapy “processing” techniques. Freddie and Lancaster quickly form a bond, as the self-styled “Master” tries to tame wild Freddie and mold him into a shining example of The Cause’s transformative power. Freddie at first thinks he’s found a surrogate family to harbor him  - but as he learns more about The Master and his cause, doubt comes creeping back to disrupt Quell’s brief tranquility.

The Master 2012 in 70mm The Master Review

As stated, The Master is cinema deserving of comparison to high literature. The film is never working on just one level (by my count it’s working on at least two levels at any given moment) and is packed to the brim with enough allusion, symbolism, metaphor and thematic implication to keep you peeling back layers and discovering new things many years and viewings later. Like good literature, the film is unconcerned with accommodating the need for easy explanations and obvious meanings – it instead challenges the viewer to raise their bar for inference and analysis. Of course, the ambiguities of the narrative will ultimately frustrate some, who struggle to see any kind of overarching point or development in the film.

It’s hard to claim that there is lack of focus or direction to The Master though, since auteur filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be BloodMagnoliaBoogie Nights) has crafted this film with such a masterful hand (sorry, couldn’t resist). Anderson has already established himself as one of the great Americana filmmakers to emerge out of the last few decades, and The Master is undoubtedly his most gorgeous and sophisticated visual opus yet. Shot in 65mm (and displayed in some theaters in 70mm print), the visual scope of the film is literally twice the size of most movies, and Anderson (working with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who replaces longtime PTA collaborator Robert Elswit) fills that extra space with picturesque imagery that will be burned into memory  - whether you fully comprehend its meaning or not. From a sequence of Freddie running across a plowed field, to a spectacular  shot of him passed out atop a Naval battleship while sailors below toss things up at him – this film could be viewed without sound and it would still tell a beautiful and captivating story.

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master 2012 The Master Review

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘The Master’

While the narrative through line can be extremely hard to grasp, Anderson’s script is nonetheless crafted with an exactness and authority that assures depth and reward for those willing to dig deep. The movie is sectioned into three acts, each headlined by a recurring image of water (at times churning violently, at times flowing serenely) trailing in the wake of some unseen vessel. Like much else in the film, the metaphor and/or symbolism is debatable, but each act (in my view) ties to Freddie’s quest to ease some unspoken, but ever-present spiritual unrest (as represented by the water). In Lancaster Dodd and his Cause, Freddie finds a family and possible purpose to his life – but that peace quickly begins to unravel as doubt about The Master’s intentions and validity as a spiritual leader come into view.

This is the heart of Anderson’s story: Freddie (as a symbol of the Freudian id? Existentialist confusion or the repressed trauma of a post-war cultural psyche?) is attracted to Lancaster’s charisma, and Lancaster (the Freudian ego? Fanaticism? Nihilsm hiding behind fanatical rhetoric?)  is attracted to Freddie’s unbridled, wild freedom (in the way the ego admires the id). Amy Adams, as the quietly fearsome Master’s wife, does what she can to keep Freddie and his heathen behaviors from lowering the idealized stature of would-be “better man” Lancaster (like the super-ego battling the id for direction of the ego). This struggle between the three principle characters is a slow burn, but scene-to-scene the superb performances of the leads is nothing short of riveting. Watching the understated arc of their conflict will be fascinating to some, but utterly boring to others who prefer more dynamic (and pronounced) action and development.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in The Master 2012 The Master Review

Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in ‘The Master’

Joaquin Phoenix arguably surpasses the greatness of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Freddie Quell is a fascinating and frightening (if not likable) character to study, and Phoenix loses himself entirely in the role – down to the strained posture, madman facial ticks and a storm of fury always lurking behind soft, deadened eyes. Hoffman is a good match for Phoenix, and scenes between Lancaster and Freddie (in particular, a scene where Lancaster interviews/psychoanalyzes Freddie as part of “processing”) are electric to watch; though, admittedly, the Lancaster/Freddie plotline comes to a somewhat underwhelming close, and is often as muddled as it is interesting. The more unexpected fireworks come from Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, with her cutesy looks turned on their head to conceal the icy fanaticism of a true believer. Though her presence is often ethereal, the times where Peggy comes front and center to impose her indomitable will are as startling and frightening as they are captivating.

Other famous (or soon to be famous) faces pop up here and there, but The Master is, essentially, a three-person circus. There Will Be Blood composer Johnny Grennwood’s discordant tunes once again transform the most innocent of moments into something seemingly intense, depraved or dangerous – often serving as an audible cue as to what we should be noticing in a particular image, some level of meaning that the music provides a clue to. The score also establishes strong ties between Blood and Master, with the latter almost serving as a companion piece to the former – which only further hints that there are many PTA signature themes (family, the historical roots of modern America’s cultural values and beliefs) waiting to be unearthed.

The Master by Paul Thomas PT Anderson  The Master Review

In the end, The Master may seem like a movie of more questions and suggestions than answers and clarity, but the sheer beauty of its composition and the intensity of its central performances are enough to elevate it above most films. Upon repeated viewings, when the layers start to get peeled back and the true exploration of the film can begin, I believe The Master will sit in a class reserved for the highest forms of cinema. You may not “get” all of it the first time around, but that won’t keep it from taking root somewhere deep in your mind – like the hypnotizing rhythm of a cult mantra.

(P.S. – As always, Anderson closes his film with an indelible final line of dialogue. Just try to unhear it once you’ve heard it.)

The Master is now playing in expanded release. It is Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.

Our Rating:

4.5 out of 5
(Must-See)

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  1. Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Paul W.S. Anderson…

    • Ha, I was just thinking of how similar those director’s names were a few days ago.

  2. @Kofi Outlaw- What are your Oscar predictions for The Master? :)

    • Lead/supporting actor performances (Phoenix FTW)
      Direction (Which PTA may not actually win – he’s not exactly an academy favorite)

  3. Beautiful piece of cinema, what els is there to say that won’t fill up the comment section completly.

  4. Some review. I consider There Will Be Blood to be not only the greatest film I have ever seen but a benchmark that will be looked upon years from now as the bar that was never quite reached by anyone else. I go into The Master with an open mind because of this. I’m not expecting it to match my own personal praise of TWBB. I simply cannot wait though to see this, to spend a day at the cinema cramming as many viewings as I can before the staff throw me out. PTA is simply without peer in my mind. Just wish we didn’t have to wait so long between movies, although, if the quality is this high, no wait wouldn’t be worth it.

  5. my butt hurt a lot during this film

    • That’s what she said.

      • Ha!

  6. To me its a good film but nowhere near there Will be blood. it didn’t really go anywhere it was just there. very hard to get through but the performances were great

  7. Is it so hard for the director to put substance in the movie?

    Or is he scared that it won’t be “artistic” enough then? Of course it will get some Oscar, but it is just so g****** hard to sit through.

    I had the same problem with TWBB. It didn’t go anywhere.

    Wasn’t a big fan of Paul T. Anderson, not gonna be after this movie either, I guess.

    • Damn right lol

    • Superhero fans, smh.

      Stick to your action flicks if you want stuff like that, okay?

      • Yeah, DAMN people for having different opinions.

        • Yeah super hero flicks there is multiple bad ones. oh yeah and the godfather, shawshank redemption, no country for old men and citizen Kane are great movies that contain substance and depth in the characters that this movie lacked.

          • Looking at the IMDb top 250 list, HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

            • huh? citizens kane isnt in the top 25.. so i don’t see how that makes sense. BTW those superhero flicks you are talking about The Dark Knight 8.9/10 number 8 on the list. PTA There will be blood 8.1/10 number 176. There will be blood is a great movie, but it still lacks substance much like the master.

        • BTW there Will be blood is far superior

  8. “Joaquin Phoenix arguably surpasses the greatness of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.”
    That’s quite the statement Mr. Outlaw. After a few sips of happy juice I’m known to spot off that Lewis’s performance in that movie is the greatest I’ve seen. Especially the moment when he confronts the guy pretending to be his brother. The look of rage on his face was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on film.
    But who knows? Maybe he has been topped. I’ll check in after I see the movie tonight to comment on if I agree or not…

  9. Joaquin Phoenix the rapper? LOL This movie just doesn’t look to be my taste. TWBB supplied some sustance but with word of mouth reviews I keep hearing the acting/performance was great but the overall plot/flow of the movie just became too boring. The only thing that stood out was Joaquin Phoenix and that’s it.

  10. Although the film is undoubtedly crafted with supreme focus. I don’t think you realize how right you are when stating this film is literature in cinema form. The adventure begins with Freddie, already a disturbed questionably insane man, & it ends as if the events which happened prior, never occurred; another chapter through the eyes of Freddie Quell can occur in another novel. Some could argue the film ended long before it started; we can’t possibly know because there were no specific timeline. The Master, was something Freddie underwent & had no control of at times, literally & figuratively. Even if Joaquin did perform the role marvelously, it isn’t so difficult playing the role of his character. Freddie has nothing to lose in the beginning, & in the end; he’s a man with no goals, or values anymore as the film develops. With an exception of a slightly poor cinematography, everything worth viewing upon was already showcased within the trailers. Honestly, if you think it was shot incredibly, focus on the angles when depicting the characters; many shots were positioned great, but you feel a sense of restriction especially during the longer scenes. The set pieces were brilliant & inventive; the best I’ve seen all year to be in fact. Watch this film only if you are serious cinema fan. As for an Oscar contender; if Joaquin is nominated we all know his acting will be completely overlooked by Daniel Day-Lewis’ perform of Lincoln. As for Philip Seymour Hoffman, I can safely say his performance will be my favourite through the rest of the year. The script will snubbed possibly by Django, & the rest of the awards are possibly headed to Lincoln. Of course I haven’t seen the films I’ve stated earlier, I’m simply making predictions.

  11. Dang, gotta wait until November until it shows here.. and then the nearest cinema showing it is 4 hours away.

  12. Worst movie ever

  13. I agree Mimi, waste of $20 and 2.5 hours of my life. Definitely a case of the Emperor with no clothes reading these reviews. Don’t take the bait!

  14. This movie was a huge dissapointment. I consider myself to be an intellectual. And yet, I left feeling numb and confused! Just as I walked out on the movie Magnolia, I should have with Master. This movie goes into the WHF experience along with Magnolia, and Tree of Life. Stop making stupid f****** movies Hollywood Pseudo Intellectual Idiots!

  15. Great review of a very complicated movie.

    Like 2001, I feel The Master is really a film about questions more than anything. (Though I’ve only seen it once, so I’m likely very wrong.) What does it mean to be human? Is Freddy the insane one for behaving like an animal, or is it Lancaster for trying to snuff out that animal behavior. Can a man really change his personality and instincts? Was Lancaster making it up the whole time, if so, why? Do these people actually believe in The Cause, or just follow along because it makes them feel better? Do we all cling to false things we think will make us happier?

    And as a great filmmaker, P.T. Anderson offers us no explanations, not because he’s unsure himself, or because he doesn’t know how to explain them, but because he wants the audience to answer those questions for themselves. What you get out of The Master is how much you put into it. If you treat it as a puzzle and try to fit the pieces together you’re probably going to enjoy it a whole lot more than people who just want to be told an interesting story. Anderson doesn’t apologize for what he does as a filmmaker, he knows the movies he wants to make (even if everyone else has a hard time seeing it), and presents them with unflinching honesty.

    Great works of art are never fully understood, but that’s okay, that’s part of the joy of art. It expands our thinking, opens our minds and breathes new life into our creative souls. People are going to be talking about and studying this film for a very long time.

  16. I really dig your points ExistentialistMe.

    After I saw it, I jotted down these questions:
    To what degree are we the “master” of ourselves? What are we trying to be the master of exactly? Do we have an essential nature? What’s the nature of this self we refer to – this mix of conscious and unconscious systems, this interplay between neo-cortex, limbic, and reptilian brains? Which part is us? What are the problems with trying to separate out different parts? What are the problems with addressing our being in terms of a simplistic binary – that there is a part of a person that is a master and there is part of us that should be enslaved? What are the problems with all those classic (overly simplistic?) dialectics: slave/master, id/ego, irrational/rational, body/soul, pre-determinism/freewill, etc.? What are the problems with trying to control ourselves, let alone trying to pinpoint a self to control? What are the problems with trying to control another’s self? Is changing someone’s behavior going to change their essence if there is an essence? When does education become enslavement, when does positive conditioning become brainwashing? What is the true goal of trying to control or change another? What are we trying to prove? That we are the master species? That we have complete freedom? That we’ve transcended our bodies? That we’ve conquered fate?

  17. Haha, wow, you’re my kind of movie-goer. I think this film is going to age better with time. I don’t quite think it’s P.T.A’s masterpiece, that honor goes to There Will Be Blood, but it’s a fascinating film that deserves recognition.

  18. Amy, Philip and, especially, Joaquin are some of the best in Hollywood. Joaquin never lets us down.
    That much nudity and sexuality, I felt, could have been less intense.

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