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TIFF 2012 Review: ‘The Master’ is a Failure Disguised as Masterpiece

By  · Published on September 10th, 2012

In his vitriolic review of Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard’s self-indulgent mess that screened at Cannes in 2010), renowned critic Mark Kermode said: “the movie is incredibly boring and incomprehensible, but so boring and incomprehensible that critics concluded it must be quite profound.” With that quote in mind, I carefully read every single glowing review I could find of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master (including one already on this site) after watching it at the Toronto Film Festival. Before the love fest, I walked out of the theater feeling confident that everyone else in attendance hated it as much as I did. Instead, it seems as if everyone has found a safe place for their beloved director’s latest to hide by looking for praise anywhere they could.

The film follows the life and tribulations of former sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) whose rather random but instant bond with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) turns into a lasting friendship that puzzles everyone around them. Quell is a deeply damaged soul who appears to be guided by his basic human needs of sex and violence but also hides greater emotional devotion to a long lost love – one he tries to retrieve years too late. Lancaster Dodd is an equally insane but significantly more eloquent oddball thanks to his natural ability to influence others around him. While his ego knows no bounds and his methods reveal no logic whatsoever, he displays such a sense of self-assurance and persuasion that he can make anyone pause and carefully listen to his words.

Freddie’s life turns into an utter failure on all fronts until his encounter with Dodd, who sees an opportunity to give meaning to his emptiness and decides to take him under his wing. Unfortunately for Dodd, Quell’s behavioral patterns are beyond salvation and the two men decide to part ways in the most bizarre sequence any movie will offer this year. They reconnect years later once Dodd’s crusades has garnered him considerable success, and both men mutually agree to meet face-to-face one last time.

The biggest problem with The Master is that it is incredibly messy. As we would expect of any director – let alone one as provingly brilliant as Anderson – to take their job title in the literal sense and give their movie a sense of direction, it’s disappointing that this movie goes absolutely nowhere. Every scene that seems to open the door to progress towards any kind of character arc reveals a brick wall behind it. Hoffman’s character is just as random as the film itself, and the only sense to be made from The Master is that Anderson had the unbelievable guts to treat his audience the same way that Dodd would treat his religious followers. Perhaps his objective was to test how far we can gobble up non-sense and still offer him a standing ovation once the lights go up. An unorthodox filmmaker wanting to enact a new range of emotions from his audience. However, even if that had been his goal, it sadly also fails. There is absolutely nothing in this movie that makes you care about any of the characters on screen, all of whom are mentally unstable weirdos with nothing compelling to offer that won’t later prove to be inconsequential. Nothing at all. Niente. Nada. It’s all false starts.

As stated before, reputable critics already disagree with that assessment. On the other hand, none of them have been able to agree on what the movie was about as each of them offered their own patched up explanation of why we should care for The Master. Almost all of them called the need for a second viewing, thus bearing the responsibility of the film’s confusion on their shoulders. The most recurrent theme mentioned in a number of reviews (but never in the film) is that Anderson presents us with a Freudian exposition through the perspective of his two eccentric leads. Which is absurd; the signposts of Sigmund Freud’s theories that someone would desperately search for on the road to cinematic relevance come one every hundred-thousand miles.

Unlike David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, we aren’t listening to conversations between the two founders of psychoanalysis but rather to one self-appointed pseudo-therapist who changes his mind as much as he changes women and underwear. Granted, Phoenix is indeed portraying an id-driven “human beast” (as Victor Hugo would call it) with no feelings of repression towards his animal impulses. However, very little in Hoffman’s diagnosis has anything to do with Freud and too much of the movie doesn’t focus on his ludicrous interrogative therapies.

There is, however, one exceptional scene in the film. In it, a mere good samaritan decides to do everyone a favor and uses his intellect to rightfully expose Dodd as being nothing more than a fraudulent Kool-Aid salesman for the vulnerable and the weak. The conversation between the two men is full of depth, it’s fast and joyfully furious. As their confrontation reaches the peak of its crescendo, it becomes the kind of scene where everyone in the audience attempts better posture in anticipation of what will happen next. Little does the audience know that the scene marked a brilliant conclusion to the part of the movie that was worthy of their attention,…but that there’s another hour and a half of smart-sounding emptiness left to go. Regardless, if Hoffman gets a Best Supporting Actor nod (as we all suspect he will), this is the clip you’ll see right before they reveal who will take home the gold.

Also on the positive side, all the technical expertise of Paul Thomas Anderson that has characterized his previous work remains in full display, especially the parts where Phoenix’s character is out at sea. The score by Johnny Greenwood, which plays continuously throughout the film’s 137 minutes, should also be credited for giving every scene’s overall blandness an aura of mystery. The acting performances are a mixed bag. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the stand out (as mentioned above), but praise for the other two A-Listers doesn’t come so easily. As the unpredictably savage Quell, Phoenix offers us the exact same oddly genuine smirks and facial contortions that earned him an Oscar nomination in Walk the Line. He nails the part no doubt, but perhaps his ability to play a deranged drunk comes to him as naturally as Megan Fox’s ability to play a shallow and attractive cheerleader. Amy Adams makes a major gamble by putting her career in the hands of the master himself, and her portrayal of an introverted but authoritative right arm to Dodd (literally in one scene) fails to gain any powerful sense of credibility. She is required to say and perform a number of deeds on screen that are downright embarrassing, and the lack of follow-up on said deeds marks that she may only be remembered for those.

Overall, The Master is a bold attempt by a highly acclaimed director to push the boundaries of our collective patience and an utter failure to get a genuine reaction in return.

Nowadays, stating that you love Anderson movies (either Wes or PT) is like stating that you love The Arcade Fire. What was once touted as a peculiar taste for the palate of the cultivated has now become a generally acceptable means to gain social approval amongst your peers. However, the fact that Anderson directed The Master is one of the very reasons why it was so depressing to sit through. In fact, a film handled by a phenomenal director which bears such a highly competent cast and crew should be regarded as a much greater train wreck than one that originated from a group of untalented and resourceless hacks. Anderson remains a great filmmaker who simply needs to refocus on what has worked for him in the past and more precisely on how he managed to involve his audience so well with his previous works.

Most of the unanimous praise for The Master described the film as being “hypnotic.” Since the term hypnosis originates from the Greek word hypnos which means sleep, I can see where everybody was subconsciously coming from.

The Upside: Technically strong, an eerie score from Greenwood, and a solid performance from Hoffman.

The Downside: No engagement in the characters and a massive mess of a narrative.

On the Side: Reese Witherspoon was once considered for Amy Adams role of Peggy.

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