I was speaking with one of my critic colleagues after our screening of Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, The Master. When I asked him what he thought of it, he responded, “I feel the same way about it as I did There Will Be Blood. I’m watching it and it’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, then it ends and I’m like, ‘What the hell was the point of that?’” His sentiments, more or less, echo mine. Anderson is no doubt a gifted filmmaker, but he has a strange way of setting up themes that he never fully explores. It’s his frustrating modus operandi and it’s never been more apparent than in The Master. It is most certainly a good film, but its failure to meet ending expectations set by its opening events prevents it from being one of the best of the year.
Heavily criticized by the Church of Scientology as an attack on their beliefs, The Master takes place post-WWII and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a war veteran who is coasting aimlessly through this new peacetime, unsure of what the future holds for him. One night, during a drunken stupor, he stumbles onto a boat run by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and passes out. He wakes up in the middle of the ocean and begins to learn who Lancaster is, discovering that he’s the founder of a faith-based organization called “The Cause.” Despite Freddie’s violent outbursts, the two strike up a friendship and Freddie quickly becomes Lancaster’s right hand man.
Paul Thomas Anderson is masterful director. His movies are beautifully shot and he always gets the absolute best out of his performers. He even managed to turn Adam Sandler, who had been thought of as nothing more than a goof at the time, into an acting powerhouse in 2002’s blissful Punch-Drunk Love. He knows when he has something good going and often opts to shoot in one continuous take, letting his actors do what they’re supposed to and giving the film a gritty realism, one that is unparalleled by any other filmmaker working today. His eye for detail and accompanying techniques to capture them, which include what one could only call an anti-shot-reverse-shot, in that his camera stays on one actor rather than editing back and forth based on who’s talking, are masterful strokes from a brilliant filmmaker.
That reason right there is enough to see The Master. It’s practically guaranteed to be nominated for multiple Oscars in the upcoming awards season (including Joaquin Phoenix, who should be a shoo-in win), but mainly due to its technical expertise. Where it flounders is in its telling of its story. I hesitate to say Anderson isn’t a good storyteller because he definitely is—this film is captivating from its first frame of frothy ocean water to its last—but it never finds meaning, or at least not the one he sets up. Early in the movie, the mystery behind this so-called religion is the film’s driving force. The themes he sets up about science vs. religion are fascinating. At times, it’s an indictment of unfounded religious thinking, exploring the idea that people will believe any religious ideology if their mind has been shaped—some may say manipulated—into believing. This is a movie that knows full well that the idea of God is planted in the mind. It’s not an inherent trait. Regardless of whether you’re religious or not, this is an important issue worth looking into given how much religion shapes so many world events.
But then the movie switches gears. It becomes less about religion and more about the relationship between Freddie and Lancaster, the latter refusing to shun the former, wanting only to help him through his meandering life. This story is no less interesting, mind you, and you’ll be so engrossed in what’s happening that it won’t be until late in the movie that you’ll realize the focus has changed. Nevertheless, this sudden shift from sharp religious commentary to broad character study is more than a little disappointing. That’s not to say that every movie needs to have some intellectual point to make on any given topic—most movies get by just fine without one—but setting one up and then suddenly dropping it comes off as unfocused. If this shift was indeed the intent, one can’t help but wonder why the none-too-subtle comparisons to the founding of Scientology, down to names, dates and locations were made to begin with.
In the end, The Master fails to fulfill its promise, though it would be unfair to say its intellectualism evaporates; it just moves it onto something else. Despite a lingering feeling of disappointment once the credits roll, there’s so much good here, so much talent on display, that it would be a crime to call it anything other than a great film. It stands right alongside the rest of this year’s other great films, though, really, that should be taken as both a compliment and a criticism. With the right focus, it could have stood above them.
The Master receives 4/5