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Movie Review: The Master (2012) – A Master Class in Performance Only

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It has been five years since we witnessed Daniel Day-Lewis put on a clinic about on-screen intensity (while also creating a short-lived internet meme about drinking everyone’s milkshake). That was in the last film from critically acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson, who burst into the Hollywood spotlight with Boogie Nights, (which he followed up by the epic oddity of Magnolia and dark humor of Punch-Drunk Love). While Anderson’s movies have a tendency to elicit extreme reactions from viewers – both positive and negative in equal amounts – it is never in question whether you will get something worth talking about. If there is a genre for coffee-table, quiet café discussion directors, Anderson would reign over it as its modern-day king.

The Master poster

Anderson’s newest project is The Master follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a perpetual drunk with no direction in life who literally stumbles into the calm clutches of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is a new-age cult leader who sees something in Freddie worth molding and sculpting. Dodd turns Freddie Quell into his prodigy with mixed results, often creating a battle not only between Quell’s lightning-quick rage and his sanity, but also between Dodd and his own followers. It all intensifies as Dodd’s following grows ever larger but more skeptical about whether what the man preaches is real or just a story he lost the thread to years ago.

The real impact of the film comes from the performances. Anderson, in my eyes, has been an actor’s director from day one. He is someone who will create amazingly beautiful and poignant scenes where these brilliant moments can live and breathe. Once you add in a cast of extremely talented actors, as exists in The Master, you know what you are about to experience is worth the ticket price.

Hoffman and Phoenix put on a virtual master class in acting. It feels like a piece of prime theater, paced with precision and directed with wonderful simplicity. Phoenix reportedly studied caged animals at the zoo in order to bring that physical quality to Quell’s nervous posture. It has worked wonders for him because there are only rare moments when you aren’t holding your breath waiting for him to explode. Hoffman also displays the potential for violence, but it is handled with much more grace and charm. He brings forth a man with a world of his own creation on his shoulders, beaming with pride, yet weakened by the weight of it all.

My main issue with the film didn’t appear until after I had finished watching it and I began to wonder what the story really was about. What was the point of it all? Was there a message in the madness of Quell or the mastery of Dodd? People can easily debate this, but it feels as if Quell makes no real change from the beginning to the end. Dodd surely changes, at least in his circumstances, but it’s not completely clear if changes occur in any other way to him or Quell.

In the end, it is amazingly portrayed, but woefully told.

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About Luke Goldstein

A writer, movie junkie and political nerd. Basically anything that tells a good story is enthralling to me.
  • Brian

    I watched this movie last night and to me the message was this: We, as humans (represented by Phoenix) don’t really know anything about why we’re here or where we go when we die and because of that lack of knowledge there’s this vulnerability to these manipulative people who claim to have insight when the reality is it’s all just an attempt to control others and thrust themselves into the spotlight. The film makes this psuedo-scientology a target of it’s scorn so that the christian masses will find it palpable, but in reality it’s mocking all religion on one hand but on the other hand attempting to deliver a comforting message: We don’t know and that’s Ok.

    Also, I think Phoenix’s character does change a bit. By the end of the movie, he’s figured out that Dodd is a fraud, yet he employs his manipulative tactics on the woman from the bar by telling her: “you’re the bravest woman I know”. Perhaps it was subconscious, but clearly Quell realized on some level that such tactics were a powerful weapon against the weak and vulnerable – something he was certainly not capable of at the beginning of the movie.

  • http://www.lukegoldstein.com Luke Goldstein

    Hi Brian,

    I like your thought about how the movie represents all religion, not just Scientology. It truly would be a more subtle way to comment on the entire practice by picking out one less popular variation instead of tackling the whole range of choices.

    Also, while we do get that little moment at the end with Phoenix showing he learned something in terms of how to manipulate people, I’m not sure whether he walked away from Hoffman because he felt he was a fraud or he knew himself well enough to understand he was never going to quit being who he was.

    It also might be challenging us to ask whether a character actually has to move forward at all to make a story feel whole. Maybe the arc is really: man has problem, man tries to fix problem, man fails. End of story. Those aren’t usually the most satisfying for the audience, but it can be argued that they are just as valuable as a story.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    My opinion: Excellent acting, mediocre film. Not much of a character arc for either of the main characters. I was disappointed overall, but there is no question that a couple of the scenes were very well done and quite memorable.

  • http://www.lukegoldstein.com Luke Goldstein

    Hi RJ,

    Yep, the first processing scene was mesmerizing. It was the first moment where I really sat forward and locked in. That scene, plus a few others, pretty much guarantee Hoffman and Phoenix some nominations come Oscar time.

  • George Olds

    I found the ‘This. Is. An. Important. Film.’ vibe that emanated from every frame quite offputting.

    Phoenix and Hoffman gave ‘master’-classes in OVER-acting.

    Incoherent script.

    Horrid editing.

    Incomprehensible ‘dialogue’.

    Your comment above, “Maybe the arc is really: man has problem, man tries to fix problem, man fails. End of story.” may make for intellectual discussion, but it makes for p!ss poor movies generally.

    For me personally, the only redeeming features were Laura Dern’s (character’s) reaction to “Book Two”, and the sets/costumes and cinematography.

    My $.02.

  • Igor

    Lousy movie. No plot, no point. A few interesting scenes, but overall a big disaster. One wonders how they attracted all the money it must have cost to produce it.

  • Tom

    Too late to comment but…
    @George Olds

    Hey you moron. All technically in this film are masterclass.

    Look at the scene that Freddie walk from the window to the wall , this is an example what the good film editing is.

    Horrid editing??? I think you had no idea what are you talking about.

    For reviewer

    If you can saw the only good thing in The Master is Performance , you completely don’t understand the cinema , please stop review and go watch more movies.