The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, “The Master”, is the story of two men.

One (Joaquin Phoenix) is an aimless, barely functional alcoholic, who is clearly not in control of his own behavior. His sanity is tentative at best. The other (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is an author and the leader of a small spiritual movement. He’s achieved a level of success and notoriety, but it’s clear that his “teachings” may be baseless, unfounded psycho-babble.

The movie revolves around the period when their lives intersect. Each of the men provide a much-needed counterpoint for the other. One gets a structure and a path to follow. A Master. The other receives a devoted follower, and a challenging student; one who may provide the ultimate test of his methodologies.

It’s a challenging, artistic, engrossing film. Like its titular character, “The Master” is captivating, intriguing, and enigmatic. Extremely thought-provoking. And when the credits roll, it may leave audiences wondering whether it was profound… or just full of hot air.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is clearly not right in the head.

He exhibits erratic behavior and is discharged from the Navy for post traumatic stress. He drinks concoctions of all varieties of hazardous liquids: fuel, paint thinner, developing fluid. He’s obsessed with sex. He is fired from the job he gets after the service as a store photographer for assaulting a customer. He winds up working as a laborer on a farm, but when one of his patented mixes proves poisonous for a fellow laborer, Freddie is forced to flee.

He winds up stowing away on a boat chartered by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is an author who has founded a spiritual, psychological, intellectual movement known as “The Cause”. In it, people are brought through a process… a series of exercises and a program of study revolving around Dodd’s teachings. In it, students are broken down and forced to confront their own secrets, thoughts and beliefs. Dodd preaches about reincarnation, and takes his followers through past life regressions while under hypnosis. His program is part psychotherapy, part behavioral conditioning, part indoctrination.

Dodd is a charismatic, intelligent figure. He’s surrounded himself with loyalists who support his movement. His wife (Amy Adams) is a steadfast true believer. When faced with dissention, Dodd proves to be a mercurial, temperamental man who is not open to his claims being challenged. Which is half personality, half protective instinct, as its clear that not everyone believes he has all the answers. In fact, even some of the people closest to him think he’s making things up as he goes along… that he’s some sort of spiritual snake oil salesman. His son (Jesse Plemons), for example, candidly feels he’s full of shit.

He not only hits it off with Quell, he also sees the ultimate subject for his program. If ever there was a lost soul, Freddie Quell is it. In fact, many of Dodd’s inner circle advise him to distance himself from Quell, fearing that he may be beyond saving, that there’s no helping him. But Dodd will have none of that. In spite of Quell’s anti-social, alcoholic, unstable behavior, he takes him in and begins to apply his teachings.

“The Master” is a unique, artful film with no easy answers. The two leads, particularly Phoenix, are astonishing. If he doesn’t earn an Academy Award nomination for this performance, something is desperately wrong. His Freddie Quell is unstable, dim, odd, and earnest. He walks the entire movie with a slight stoop, and frequently stands with his hand on his hips in an odd way, given him a chicken-like appearance that’s hard to describe. The character lashes out violently at times, and frequently acts inappropriately. In contrast, Hoffman’s Dodd is the lord of the manor… gregarious and charming when things are going well, and roaring defensively when challenged. He does a remarkable job as well, it’s just that Phoenix’s role is much more transformative.

Anderson plays them off of each other wonderfully. The aimless soul to whom nothing makes sense, and the confident master who feels he has everything figured out. Of course, neither is completely correct. Quell may have moments where his life experience is truer than Dodd’s, and of course, Dodd’s worldview is anything but unassailable. Supporting the dance the two leads perform is Anderson’s incredible directorial style. He has the confidence to let the acting and characters take center stage and then occasionally support the themes presented with wonderfully framed, thought-provoking images. Hoffman racing across the flats on his motorcycle, or Phoenix lying unconscious high above the ship deck.

Of course, the film is begging for interpretation. It’s absolutely ripe for analysis. A full, cohesive theory on the themes presented isn’t something that can be formed on a single viewing (otherwise, obviously, it would be “simplistic”), but my initial take on it is that Anderson has taken the quasi-Scientology teacher/student framework and turned it into a meditation on the human experience and perception of the mind (or spirit)/body separation. Everything Quell does is instinctual. He fights, fornicates and flees. It’s clear he doesn’t examine his own behavior… he barely applies any buffer of thought before acting whatsoever. He’s also given a wealth of scenes revolving around tactile experiences, he’s always touching things, or hitting things. Dodd, on the other hand is almost entirely a cerebral character. He speaks constantly of the spirit, and clearly spends much of his time thinking, speaking, teaching, writing. As I’ve said, with a movie like this, and a filmmaker/screenwriter like Anderson, you wont be able to watch a movie once and completely grasp the themes he’s trying to convey. But on my initial pass, its apparent to me that there’s something there along those lines… some level of rumination on the human being thinking of itself as two entities, a body and a mind (or a spirit). Quell is much too physical, Dodd is much too cerebral, and they’re often shown either wrestling, hugging, squaring off face to face across a table, imprisoned side by side… a number of things that made me think “Two halves of a whole”. Too many, for me at least, to believe it’s coincidence.

It’s a brilliant film. Perhaps too much for me to wrap my head around immediately. It’s certainly a think piece… those interested in movies purely as entertainment and not as examination should be forewarned. But it’s undeniably excellent, challenging, and remarkable. It is certain to be a major player come awards season. I’ll hold my “Extra plus” in reserve until I can arrive at a cohesive theory as to its deeper meaning, but this film is certainly extraordinary, and bound to be discussed as one of the year’s best.


54 thoughts on “The Master

  1. I have been waiting for your thoughts on this film. I am not a big PTA fan (took me years to appreciate Boogie Nights, Hard Eight was okay, Magnolia was painful, and just flat our skipped There Will be Blood). yet this film, as dry as the previews have been, has me intrigued.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review.

    • No problem. I would have to say though – is you disliked Magnolia (which I LOVE btw), you might not appreciate this. Not sure.

      You use the word “Dry” in describing the previews. I realize what you’re saying, and would extend it to the entire film. It could probably be considered a very “Dry” movie.

  2. So glad we agree! It’s tough stuff but I wanted to watch it again from the start when it ended but that was also because they serve beer in this Vail movie theatre; it’s engrossing for sure. See my rave review.

    • I will have to check that out… I’m gonna start making the rounds and see who has reviews up this afternoon.

      Definitely engrossing. Not exactly a “Time flew by” film, but it held my attention every second. LOTS to chew on here. Cant wait for it to hit blu so I can watch again from the beginning and try to flesh out a theory as to its deeper meanings!

    • Nice. Yeah, I mean… I dont want to get locked in to choosing whether it would be Avengers or this at this moment. LOL. Theyre such polar opposites! 😀 But this is definitely in contention for movie of the year for me. No doubt.

      Phoenix was insane here. Such a fantastic character.

  3. It’s not an easy watch, but if you can get past a lot and just watch what’s on-display, it’ll probably be one of the finer movie experiences of the year. Hoffman and Phoenix are terrific and deserve Oscar nominations. Without a doubt. Good review buddy. One of my favorites of the year, but not my favorite from Anderson.

    • Thanks Dan!

      Yeahhhhh probably not my favorite either. I mean, Boogie Nights has a mortal lock on that title. LOL. And Magnolia probably retains second place…. But this could challenge There Will Be Blood for third, for sure. I’ll have to see how it grows on me 😉

      I’ll be swinging by to get your take, soon!

  4. I’ve been dying to see your grade on this…granted I haven’t read your review yet (just skipped down to the grade LOL), but I will be seeing this next week (only 1 theatre in my area is playing it right now)! P.T. Anderson is one of my top 5 fave writer/directors & I’ve about been jumping out of my skin for this movie to be released…,as you know I am the biggest fan of Magnolia & really hope this lives up to that caliber…I’ll check back here after I’ve seen the film!

    • Its VERY different, but of course, its of similarly high quality.

      Expect to be challenged. Its not an easy film. As mentioned above, it can be a little “Dry”, and obviously its thick with meaning… stuff that’s not going to jump out and say “This is what I mean!”

      But I’m sure you’ll take to it. If you love PTA I think you’ll be pleased. I know I was. A day later, and I’m still pondering… that’s a good thing, for a movie like this! 😀

  5. I just saw this movie on Saturday and had a similar reaction that you did.
    I definitely agree that it was trying to question you, not trying to give you answers. (That is mainly what my not-posted-yet review says.)
    You talked about Dodd and Freddie a lot, but I’m interested as to what you think about Peggy. I can’t really put my finger on it, but at some points I thought she was almost more manipulative than Dodd was. It made me wonder how much of the Cause she believed in and how much was a bid for power. I obviously need to see it again; I may see it totally differently when I do.
    Also, fun fact: I was able to see it in 70mm and it looked really awesome. Just sayin’ (even though I don’t fully understand the significance of that distinction.

    • Yeah, I’m not that knowledgeable in that regard either, aside from knowing it refers to the size of the print, obviously. A lot of people get all excited to see them in this format or that… pretty sure I saw it digitally and it looked fine.

      As to Peggy, she was very manipulative, she was a bit power hungry it seemed, yes…

      I thought Amy Adams did a fine job, although her role wasn’t as large as the two leads, for sure. As far as what her character might, if anything, represent in the broader meaningn of the film, I dont know at this point. Anytime there’s a trifecta like this I tend to reflexively think id, ego, superego, but I really didnt get a sense of that the way I did with the mind/body thing. Especially as I’m kind of leaning towards the ending being a death metaphor…

      That would all need a lot more thought, and reviews, and time. I’m looking forward to puzzling over it though!

      • I did not think of a death metaphor at all. Far out!
        I already knew I had to see this again, but now I really know it. So many theories…

  6. I am profoundly satisfied that this Anderson film does not pander or meaninglessly proselytize on the two sides of a coin human nature issue. The fact that there seems to be more here than the obvious makes me eager to see the brilliance!

    Great job Fogs on what I am sure was a difficult film to review!

    • You know? I never have trouble with the ones on the extremes. If a movie is really good or really bad, the review is always easy, because I wind up having things I WANT to say. It’s the blecch in the middle that gets me. Getting 500 words down about some uninspiring piece of garbagiola, you know?

      Meanwhile, definitely hit this. It is certainly cretainly worth checking out. It’s very high brow, its extremely well done, its absolutely worth your time, buddy.

      Hope you dig it!

  7. Does it have Tom Cruise jumping on a couch?

    I have a feeling I’ll like it, but I think Leonard Maltin is probably going to be right (via what he said on the Doug Loves Movie’s podcast). It’s going to be one of those films critics and nerdy film people will mostly like (i.e.: Tree of Life!) and rave about and when a general audience goes and sees it they’ll be less than thrilled.

    • No, it does not involve jumping on a couch. LOL

      And yeah, Maltin may be right. I think what he probably misses though is that audiences who have no interest in this type of film… those general audiences who would be turned off by such an artistic “film”… will stay far away. People are smarter than they get credit for.

      That said, this is along those lines, yes. But I also really liked “Tree of Life”, so I guess its all persepctive…

  8. Woah, A+! I haven’t seen such high grade in your review yet. That’s awesome because I really want to see this movie and I love writing theories and articles and trying to interpret films. Can’t wait for this one!

    • Havent caught the vaunted A++ yet? I havent given many this year, its true…

      I hope we’ll have some between now and the end of the year though!

      Yeah, this is definitely the type of moive that’s RIPE for that, Sati. It practically ASKS you to do it. LOL. You’ll see. I hope you like it as much as I did.

    • That’s a bummer, man. I’m actually surprised its a September release, here. I mean, November in limited release would be the typical awards season push move… I dont know why they didnt do that.

      I held off on the final plus cause (I give A++s LOL) I think it’s going to lose a LOT of people. And I dont have my head wrapped around it entirely.

      YET. 😀

  9. Wasn’t planning on seeing this because a friend walked out of it. He gave it a 0. Personally, I don’t listen to his reviews when he walks out because the rating he gave is only for the little bit he saw and not the whole film. By reading your review, I’m going to try and see this and watch it to the end.

    • Well… LOL. I wouldnt be too hard on him.

      If he gave it a 0 based on some portion of the film… I can pretty much guarantee he’d give it a 0 all the way through. This isn’t “About Schmidt” or something, where an ending rides in to save the day, or it “Gets better as it goes” LOL. I’m sure he saw enough to determine that its the type of movie he cant stand, and then he bailed.

      Oh well. More for me. 😀

  10. You’re right my friend, it definitely is a movie that evokes thought. I like how you bring out the fact of the two characters being halves that complete a whole with one another. I complete agree. Man, they were the yin and yang to each other weren’t they? The performances were rock solid. so well done. I just wasn’t a fan of it nearly as much as you.

    Great review. You brought out some really great aspects of the film. I just wish I could’ve enjoyed the film as much as I did your review.

  11. Great review fogs. It’s only now I’m starting to hear less than satifactory reviews. However, there’s always strong positives like tour yourself that leave me desperate to make my own mind up in this. Can’t wait to see it.

  12. Great review, man. Glad to hear you enjoyed this so much. I’m actually a little shocked at the divisive reaction this has been getting lately — it seems like some people are going into it with the wrong expectations. You know I loved it, though.

    I may have to do a “revisiting” piece when I see this again, which I hope to do so soon.

    • Yeah, a second viewing is BOUND to bring new discoveries, no doubt.

      The divisive nature of the film doesn’t surprise me at all. This is easily his least accessible film. People going in to this one just to see a movieare going to be far more confused, and way less entertained than they would watching any of his other movies. This one doesnt care. LOL. It has more important things to do.

      Movies like that tend to split people into those that “get it” (or want to get it at least) and those who get pissed. I imagine that you’re not going to find much middle ground with this movie in terms of reaction. People are either gonna love it… or hate it. Both in extreme ways. 😀

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