Saturday, September 15, 2012

Don't Review "The Master," Digest "The Master"

First of all, let's put this aside: a new PT Anderson movie is an event. The guy's proven himself to be a MAJOR filmmaker, and any critiques of his work seem petty. In twenty years, all of his films will be PT ANDERSON FILMS, and THE MASTER is no different -- a must-see for any film lover, bizarre, challenging, commanding, and utterly unique in every way. Whatever your expectations may be, shelve them. PT's got this on lockdown.

That said, this is one downbeat, cynical, often intentionally ugly film. I've seen Joaquin Phoenix in a few movies thus far; I don't recognize this Joaquin Phoenix. Craggy, beaten-down, possibly autistic -- we spend most of the time with him, seeing the world through his perspective. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is accurate: he is a "scoundrel," one who hops from job to job, distills his own probably-toxic alcohol, fucks and fights freely.

Of course, when Dodd adopts him, he's also adopting a dog. He consistently says men are not animals, but he chides Phoenix's Freddie as a "naughty boy," congratulates him as a "good boy." He's clearly trying to make this slobbering fool into his own personal lapdog. Sometimes, attack dog.

Hoffman's Dodd is commanding and overwhelming, very much like Orson Welles playing Ron Burgundy, in that the mask keeps slipping, and you keep learning that this man is a blowhard jackoff. He gets accosted by some contrarian asshole at a party, and first completely dominates him, but soon loses his cool and berates him as a "PIG... FUCK!"

The film plants doubts about Dodd in the second act (including suspicious seeds planted regarding his scary wife, Amy Adams -- not sure what to make of that), suggesting a third act crumbling of the house of cards. Instead, the third act is elliptical, impressionistic, and proudly opaque. Dreams and reality mingle, the film's point of view keeps altering. It's absolutely bloated in a way "There Will Be Blood" was lean -- I'm not certain that's a bad thing with a filmmaker like Anderson, who keeps putting beguiling images and amazing performances onscreen. There's one scene with a motorcycle in the desert that will inspire debates because of how maddening and confusing it seems, tonally, thematically and conceptually. There's other scenes where a static shot captures a long walk down a hallway, simply to showcase depth of field for no reason whatsoever. Not sure where Anderson was going here, to be honest -- you could have reorganized much of the third act, and it would still make a similar sort of sense to me.

Anyway, it doesn't really matter. This is big event filmmaking from a world-class filmmaker still at his peak. It works because it can't be digested, because you'll need time to process it. You'll need to stare this film in the eye, unflinching, and somehow process it. I wish you luck. Let me know how far you got with this film in the comments.


  1. If "There Will Be Blood" was lean, then I must like my films anorexic.

    It doesn't seem to help when you write your reviews as if your readers will agree with all your prior opinions about film.

    Though it's not that helpful when you move into being actively cryptic:
    "Instead, the third act is elliptical, impressionistic, and proudly opaque."
    Should I add "pretentious" to the list then?

    Perhaps I should have been throwing terms around like eliptical and proudly opaque when people were complaining about "Prometheus" not giving them all the answers, but I'm actually worried that you mean that "The Master" does the same thing as "There Will Be Blood" by falling flat instead of actually ending.

    "It works because it can't be digested, because you'll need time to process it. You'll need to stare this film in the eye, unflinching, and somehow process it. I wish you luck."

    Yeah, this REALLY isn't going to be my sort of film. Still, presumably the cast don't all break out in song at the beginning of the third act this time...

  2. "There Will Be Blood" is lean, for it has no apparent subplots. It's a taut, narrowly-focused film of ideas and subtext.

    Interesting how you made the error about calling this a "review." Read the post title.

    "Pretentious," a word I loathe, should be reserved for it's true meaning, that being an idea reaching for far more than it can possibly reveal. I don't think it applies here.

    Not sure where you're coming from in regards to "There Will Be Blood" falling "flat." Nor do I understand how "Prometheus," a film entirely unlike this one, even enters the conversation. "Prometheus" is also a stupid thrill ride masked under fake profundity. I see no such commercial excess in Anderson's pictures.

  3. Having gotten to this almost a year after the fact, I agree that "The Master" is dense, intentionally opaque and pretentious perhaps in its attempts to circle more themes than it could quite articulate.

    But the pregnant suggestions in the relationship between the two leads (or 3?) as it develops and shifts, in the "religion/cult" context that seems increasingly incidental to the true point of the film, seems best taken in by instinct rather than by your intellect.