The Master (2012)

The Master

Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012

First of all, whatever you may have heard, this movie has nothing to do with Scientology, so get that out of your head before watching it.

Second, a confession: Before The Master, the only Paul Thomas Anderson films I’d seen were Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood, so I don’t know if his two other films have the same problems that I’m going to complain about here, but up to this point I really enjoyed his work. Even when it’s dark and gruesome, Anderson is great at establishing atmosphere and characters, but The Master doesn’t seem to understand what it’s getting at.

The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix at his most unintelligible as Freddie Quell, a reticent Second World War veteran whose talent for making toxic chemical cocktails gets him in enough trouble to cause him to stow away on a boat owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a similarly broken cult leader. Over an uncertain amount of time, Freddie and Dodd build each other up until they no longer need each other.

I really liked Philip Seymour Hoffman as Dodd. One scene that particularly stood out to me was when he makes his “second revelation” in Arizona, and tells his congregation that the visions he had previously called “past lives” were really in their heads. Dodd isn’t just a huckster, he’s an artist who’s become dissatisfied with his creation. It’s an familiar scene for creatives of all stripes.

But I didn’t like Freddie. I like Phoenix, but Anderson’s choices in the portrayal of Freddie are too perplexing to make any sense of. In one scene, Freddie imagines all the women in the congregation naked, but it’s without any context; the guy speaks so little, and upon speaking is so hard to understand, that he’s impossible to relate to or comprehend. Hell, I felt kinda gross after seeing it. This is a beautiful film, mind you, but most of the praise I’ve read for it is based on the substance of the story, not the look or style, so clearly there’s something I’m not getting. C

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