“THE MASTER” (2012) Review
Paul Thomas Anderson seemed to be one of those filmmakers who embody what critics would categorize as a modern day “auteurist” that release a movie every few years to dazzle moviegoers and critics with his or her personal creative vision. During his sixteen years as a director and filmmaker, he has made four short films and six feature movies. One of the six feature films is his latest, “THE MASTER”.
Believed by many to be an exposé on Scientology, “THE MASTER” tells of the story of a World War II Navy veteran named Freddie Quell, who struggles to adjust to a post-war society. Freddie uses sex and alcohol to escape his personal demons. But when his drinking and violent behavior leads him to lose jobs as a department store photographer and a field worker on a cabbage farm, Freddie ends up in San Francisco, where he stows aboard a yacht that belongs to one Lancaster Dodd, a leader of a philosophical movement known as “The Cause”. Dodd sees something in Quell and accepts him into the movement. But Freddie’s drunken and violent behavior fails to abate and Dodd’s wife, daughter and son-in-law begin to express doubt that the latter can help the World War II veteran.
What can I say about “THE MASTER”? Did it turn out to be the exposé on Scientology that many believed it would become? Not really. Despite its title, “THE MASTER” seemed to be more about Freddie Quell than Lancaster Dodd and “the Cause”. The movie did feature practices that are believed to be similar to those practiced by members of Scientology. But the movie’s deeper focus on Freddie’s personal demons has led me to believe that the Church of Scientology has nothing to fear. In the end, “THE MASTER” seemed to be more of a character study of the very disturbed Freddie Quell, along with a secondary study of Lancaster Dodd . . . and their friendship. And Paul Thomas Anderson revealed these two character studies in a movie with a running time of 143 minutes.
There were aspects of “THE MASTER” I found very admirable. The movie featured an outstanding performance from Joaquin Phoenix, who gave a volatile portrayal of the disturbing Freddie Quell. I was also impressed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. His performance not only hinted in subtle ways, his understanding of Freddie’s demons, but the possibility that he once possessed similar demons. And Amy Adams was memorable as Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s second or third wife, who not only seemed more dedicated to “the Cause” than her husband; but also seemed to understand both him and Freddie with a frankness the two men seemed unwilling to face. And all three – Phoenix, Hoffman and Adams – have received Golden Globe nominations and all three deserved them. The movie also featured solid performances from Laura Dern, who portrayed a hardcore devotee to Dodd; Rami Malek, Dodd’s quiet and unassuming son-in-law who assumes a dislike of Freddie; Ambyr Childers, Dodd’s daughter, who hides a lusty attraction to Freddie; Jesse Plemons, who portrays Dodd’s disenchanted son; Madisen Beaty, who portrays Freddie’s love of his life; and Kevin J. O’Connor, a devotee of “the Cause” who is not impressed by Dodd’s writing.
I was also impressed by the movie’s production designs. David Frank and Jack Fisk did an excellent job in re-creating America during the post-World War II era and the beginning of the 1950s. Mark Bridges’ costumes were tasteful and at the same time, projected an accuracy of the era. And cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. captured Anderson’s direction and the movie’s setting with some impressive photography.
So, did I enjoy “THE MASTER”? No. In fact, I dislike the movie . . . intensely. There is nothing more boring than a 143 minute character study, in which the main character does not evolve or devolve. Freddie Quell never changes. Perhaps this was the lesson that Anderson was trying to convey. But honestly, he could have done this with more solid writing, a shorter running time and with less pretentiousness. And I have never seen a movie with so much pretentiousness since Joe Wright’s movie, “HANNA”. While watching an early scene that featured Freddie dry humping a nude woman made from sand on a beach, I began to suspect that my patience might be tested with this film. I had no idea my patience would eventually slipped into sheer boredom. One cannot image the relief I felt when the movie finally ended.
I realize that “THE MASTER” has received a great deal of acclaim from critics and some moviegoers. But I simply failed to see the magic. And if this movie manages to acquire a great deal of nominations during the awards season (which it probably will), I will not be one of those cheering the movie for critical glory. I dislike it too much. Oh well. Perhaps I will like Anderson’s next film.