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Review: The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)

Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson

Premise: A naval veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) returns to the States and struggles with alcohol abuse while drifting across the country until he meets a charismatic writer and cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

What Works: The Master is the latest film from writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson and it is an ambitious film about the search for meaning. Like many of Anderson’s other films, the success of The Master hinges on the lead actors and this film features some terrific performances. Joaquin Phoenix plays the vagrant navy veteran and this is one of his best performances, which in Phoenix’s case is really saying something. Part of what is so impressive about Phoenix’s performance is that he plays a man who is irresponsible and stupid and the actor makes no attempt to apologize for his character. Despite how pathetic Phoenix’s character is, both the actor and the filmmakers are able to substitute fascination for likability and the film remains watchable because it is about the attempt of an average man to aspire to great things. Also impressive is Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cult leader. Hoffman’s character is a fraud but a successful fraud and Hoffman plays the role so that his character’s humanity is intact; his belief system is a hustle but whether or not he cares for his family and associates is more ambiguous. The relationship between these two men form the substance of the movie and The Master is a relevant film for contemporary audience in the way that it deals with the search for spiritual meaning. This is a film not only for believers in a higher power but also for the growing audience of non-believers as it asks important questions about how spiritual movements shape their followers but also what it might mean for us if there is no higher calling.

What Doesn’t: Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmmaking style has always gravitated toward that of directors like Robert Altman and Terrence Malick over that of more mainstream filmmakers and The Master may be the closest yet that Anderson has come to imitating Malick’s style. As such, The Master is somewhat mysterious and fluid, which will make it challenging and potentially frustrating for mainstream audiences. Like Malick’s films, The Master has a poetic filmmaking style, meaning that it is not necessarily to be understood in narrative terms, at least not primarily. There is a plot but like There Will Be Blood the plot is secondary to the exploration of the characters. The Master has to be understood as a character study but also as a sociological study. In the same way that Magnolia was about the complexities of family relationships, The Master is about the relationship between religious leaders and their followers. But even allowing for that and evaluating The Master in terms of the filmmakers’ goals, the picture does have its short comings. Anderson is able to get some tremendous performances out of his actors and individual scenes are brilliantly done but there is an emptiness to this film in its end. That may be part of the point as the filmmakers poke holes not only in the pretensions of the cult leader but also in his disillusioned follower’s attempt to grasp at any greater meaning of life; the ending of The Master suggests  that the search for spiritual enlightenment is a fool’s errand. If that is indeed the case, nearly two and a half hours is a long way to get to that conclusion.

Bottom Line: The Master is a film that warrants multiple viewings. The picture has tremendous performances and ambitious thematic goals and as a matter of filmmaking craft it is as good as anything Paul Thomas Anderson has made. But the irony of The Master is that its considerable talents and resources are directed toward an underwhelming conclusion.

Episode: #413 (November 4, 2012)