I love every film Paul Thomas Anderson has ever made.
Sadly, that statement only lasted up until this weekend. I don’t love The Master. It got held down by its own style and pacing. I wanted to love it, for sure. I tried to love it. But in the end, I just couldn’t get past its fatal flaws…
It does have its merits though. And they are glorious. Joaquin Phoenix is pretty much guaranteed an Academy Award for his role as Freddie. Introduced to us as a perverted war veteran who fingers a sand sculpture woman about 20 seconds too long, and then masturbates on a public beach; Freddie’s character was brilliantly set up without much dialogue. Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is equally as deviant, only it comes out differently than Freddie. Dodd is more of a guy who would BS his way into your wallet with words; as opposed to Freddie, who would just punch you and steal your wallet. I found the whole film to be less about Scientology and creating a cult than it was simply an exploration into the relationship between two different kinds of crazy people. One intellectual, and one carnal.
These two characters become friends out of some sort of oddball respect for each other. Dodd respects Freddie’s aimless freedom and lack of inhibitions, and Freddie respects Dodd’s supposedly brilliant mind. Neither of them are good people. And when characters like Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams) are introduced, you begin to hope for a moral high ground to emerge in someone, but she’s ultimately just like the rest of the scum. There are essentially no heroes in this film. And anyone who suggests they may be good guys are either never seen again or eventually converted to the wrong side of things.
You’ll probably struggle to find a more well-acted film this year. The scenes of Dodd and Freddie alone in conversation are incredibly entertaining. Particularly Dodd’s first inquisition into the mind of Freddie, where the thug isn’t allowed to blink; and the jail house scene where true colors start to emerge. Hoffman might end up on stage come awards time for his performance in this as well. But Joaquin was amazing. I couldn’t take my eyes off his horribly postured, forever scowling character. I was reaching Heath Ledger/Joker levels of being mesmerized by just looking at Freddie on the screen. It was an interesting and original character, for sure.
The cinematography is phenomenal as expected (well, it is a PTA movie). Jonny Greenwood’s music score is not quite as good as his There Will Be Blood score, but it’s still very worthwhile and fits the film nicely. Paul Thomas Anderson movies are always highlighted by unexpected bursts of violence and aggression, and The Master seemed like it had the most moments of that going on than any of his other films. It’s like the scene in Punch Drunk Love where Adam Sandler’s character breaks the sliding glass doors out of nowhere, only in The Master, it happens every 10 minutes. Or at least something unexpected happens every 10 minutes. Whether it’s violent spurts, nudity laden drunken visions, or bizarre dialogue; something always happens that kept me entertained throughout. And that’s despite the fact that The Master essentially doesn’t have a plot.
Being a plotless movie isn’t The Master’s greatest shortcoming. Some films can meander about, and just exist, and not have a forced storyline injected into it. The Master does just that, and I didn’t totally mind that aspect. It’s an art film to the highest degree, and halfway through the movie I could just tell that the film was gonna have an abrupt and ambiguous ending. Which it did.
The Master had, in my mind, two crippling flaws that kept it from being a masterpiece.
1) The movie felt like it was a two and a half hour long trailer. It was basically a collection of all the best parts of a story, with none of the connecting pieces. Time jumps are frequent, and behavior that I wished would have been explained end up going drastically unexplained. When I say the final film is like a trailer, I mean that in a trailer you see a 5 second snippet of a scene and it makes you want to see more of the scene in the final film. But in The Master it felt like I was watching a 5 minute snippet of a larger scene, and I was hoping for more context. I don’t mind filling in a few blanks (No Country for Old Men is a perfect example how many blanks to fill, btw), but The Master required me to fill in details between almost every scene. In another film, this would have spelled doom, but at least The Master was entertaining enough that I didn’t fully mind. Still, it was just fragments of a potentially coherent story.
2) And this is in relation to problem #1… The Master is two and a half hours long! There Will Be Blood is just as long, but it didn’t feel that way, to me. Perhaps because TWBB had *slightly* more fluid of a story. Or at least it had a more linear narrative. The Master had plenty of gratuitous elements to it. Things that didn’t quite need to be shown, but are shown regardless. Clean this movie up, trim off 30-40 minutes, and The Master would have likely been brilliant. There is a four-minute scene of the two leads digging up a lock box in the desert. Did it have to be four minutes? Certainly not. One day later after seeing the film; I appreciate the fact that they did what they did with that scene, but it was a bit grueling to get through while I was actually watching it. There were a lot of scenes like the desert digging scene. They give me a completely conflicted view of The Master. One one hand, yeah that scene was nice. On the other hand, was it totally necessary? It didn’t seem like there was a lot of restraint in the editing process.
One final praise I’d like to give the film is the marketing campaign. The trailers and commercials, now that I’ve seen the film, are made up of plenty of outtakes and deleted scenes. In a time when trailers tend to give away the best parts of most movies, The Master was sold to us using stuff that I was waiting to see but never did. Even the film’s most marketed and quoted line; Freddie in a jail cell yelling “JUST SAY SOMETHING THAT’S TRUE!” didn’t end up making the final cut. I love that. But I imagine it only works for something like The Master, where every scene is slightly gratuitous. I don’t think Resident Evil 6 is leaving any good shots from the trailers on the cutting room floor.
The Master is a movie I would recommend to no one. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s good. I do. But I like it in the most film snobby kind of way. It’s not casual watching. It’s not quite a love it or hate it film either, because I think even if you hate it you’ll at least take a few undeniably good moments away from it. And if you love it, I hope you’ll like defending its glaring flaws. As a self-professed lover of Paul Thomas Anderson movies, I thought The Master was slightly above average, if that says anything. I wanted to like it more. Maybe they should have put in more fart jokes (there were only two).
7.5 out of 10