The Master (2012)

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*. There’s a recurrent cautionary tale in Hollywood. The lesson is not to give a hot director or auteur his head. What you end up with is Greed. You may, as a studio head, have loved the success of Easy Rider, but then you got The Last Movie. You may have basked in the critical adulation lavished on The Deer Hunter, but then you got Heaven’s Gate. You saw acres of promise in Boogie Nights and then you got Magnolia. Sticking with Paul Thomas Anderson, you scored with There Will Be Blood and then you got The Master.
*. Not to say this is a terrible movie, but after the first half hour I was wondering where the editor was. Then I realized the editor may have been less of a problem than the producer. Who was reining Anderson in? This movie should never have been allowed to go on so long, to so little point.

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*. That opening is a good example of a dead zone. How much useful information does it give us to see Freddie playing around on the island? The business with the sand woman is suggestive, but everything else is only filler.
*. I don’t mind a bit of ambiguity, but my main problem with this movie is my strong sense that a lot less is going on than we are being made to believe.
*. Take Dodd’s fascination with Freddie, his expressed belief that they have some kind of special connection based on who they were in their prior lives. Is any of this genuine, or is it all just part of Dodd’s usual script for adopting a new member to the Cause? I don’t think there’s any way of telling.

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*. I guess Philip Seymour Hoffman is good here, but how interesting is Lancaster Dodd? He seems like a run-of-the-mill religious fraud to me. We are never led to believe he is anything other than exactly what he seems, which is a charlatan. His philosophy is borrowed from L. Ron Hubbard and Philip K. Dick, but he never comes across as a genuine eccentric or particularly invested in his particular line of bullshit. We get to see the façade crack on a few occasions to let us know that there’s nothing underneath but an angry, stupid man.
*. I guess Joaquin Phoenix is good here too, but it’s hard to tell. Anderson seems intent on pushing his performances toward ever greater depths of inarticulateness. But be that as it may, it’s not that I don’t like Freddie Quell — that’s irrelevant — it’s that he’s not somebody I care about. He’s an alcoholic cretin, and I don’t see how you can get much more out of him than that. Yes, he’s messed up, seeing pussy everywhere, but so what?
*. This is disappointing, because the fascinating thing about cults is that they have no problem attracting people who aren’t, or who at least don’t seem to be, so desperate and lost. Well-educated, personable people from good families fall into their clutches all the time. So it’s hard to find anything remarkable or compelling in a piece of human driftwood like Freddie being adopted by the Cause. After leaving the navy, which presumably gave his life purpose and structure, he almost literally fell into the Master’s lap.
*. By my rough reckoning Freddie Quell should be a man in his late 20s. Joaquin Phoenix would have been 38 (give or take a year) when filming. But he looks like he’s pushing 60. Did this not bother anyone? Couldn’t they have at least tried to make him look his own age?

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*. Rounding out the three leads, Amy Adams is a complete cipher. I’ll grant there’s something vaguely sinister about her blankness but there’s nothing else to her. I assumed she had some personal agenda that she wasn’t letting on. You can call that mystery or ambiguity, but I found it to be a dramatic dead end.
*. Of course it looks good, but at the end of the day there’s not enough meat to this story. I’m not sure Anderson should be encouraged as a writer. I think there is an interesting theme here, about the human need to believe in something, to have faith, to connect to others, and also patterns of dominance and bonding that are imprinted on us by our families, but they’re inadequately explored and expressed. We never really see Freddie transforming, or mentally developing, and at the end my conclusion is that he hasn’t, that he’s still looking for love at his mother’s breast. Which means we took over two hours to get nowhere.

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