The Master (2012)

The Master (2012) – So looking across the wide range of American film-makers working today, it’s easy to single Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the geniuses. With a track record that includes Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood (in addition to Hard Eight, which I have not seen yet but have heard good things about) the man can seemingly do no wrong. Even with the excellence of his first few movies, his film-making game seemed to be raised to a new level with There Will Be Blood so I was eagerly anticipating his next film. Then I heard news that he would be doing a fictionalized account of the origins of the Church of Scientology. He had a hard time getting funding, because that cult –I’m sorry, “church”- has some serious influence in Hollywood. With the help of film producer and heiress Megan Ellison, Anderson found his funding and got to work. The film reunites him with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who has been in all of his movies except for There Will Be Blood. So, to review the ingredients: genius film-maker, fascinating and potentially controversial subject matter, one of the director/actor pairings since Kurosawa/Mifune or Scorsese/DeNiro.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a discharged soldier sort of drifting, literally from place to place and also in terms of his life. He has a somewhat explosive temper that usually results in him having to leave wherever he’s settled in. Through his various misadventures he makes the acquaintance of one Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). Dodd is the leader of a philosophical movement called “the Cause,” centered around Dodd’s writings. Dodd does a sort of intake interview with Freddie and soon thereafter Freddie is a diehard follower of Dodd’s. The cause does little to nothing though to stop Freddie’s outbursts of anger or his nonstop drinking. Some members of the Cause, particularly Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), worry about his involvement but Dodd seems particularly attached to him.

The master has been ranked by many different critics as well as the much-respected film magazine Sight & Sound as the greatest film of 2012. I feel like I’m missing something because it really didn’t reach me. I actually felt bored at times. I have nothing against slow-moving films and even have trouble pinpointing exactly what I didn’t like about it (which kind of fucks up the idea of writing a qualitative review). The look of the film was great. (I only wish I could have seen it in 70mm, the way it was shot. Sadly, as film becomes rarer and pushed out by digital movies shot in particular ways like this one will be harder and harder to track down in their intended formats. Also, where I saw the movie [The Tower Theater] really fucked up the sound.) Hoffman is excellent in the film. At this point, if you see his name in the credits you can just assume he’s excellent in a movie. Joaquin Phoenix really surprised me with the intensity of his performance. You can’t take your eyes off of him. The scenes between the two are sort of amazing as far as the acting is concerned. But in the end, I’m not sure what it all adds up to. The superb acting and the technical perfection of the film-making in the end don’t come together into anything that provoked a real emotional response in me. I felt detached. Was that the point? I’m not sure. My inclination is always to give a film-maker like Anderson the benefit of the doubt, but I just don’t get it. I would encourage people to see the movie anyway. I always think risks should be rewarded in film-making and obviously I am outnumbered in my opinion of the film. I think it’s one of those movies you need to see, because the opinion you form about it will somewhat reflect your philosophies of film-making. Mine just happened to be an unfavorable one. Like the movie itself, I’m not entirely sure what that means.

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