Ready for this?
I’m going to do a review. I know: weird, right?
Well, anyways, I got to check out The Master last week, which is Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film. He’s pretty well-known for making serious, grand-scale, and pretty damn good movies, most of the time. His characters tend to be larger-than-life and a bit crazy. For anyone that’s seen 2009’s There Will Be Blood, you might have some idea what I’m talking about.
I’m going to get this little plot summary out of the way: WWII vet Freddie Quill (Joaquin Phoenix) suffers from PTSD and extreme alcoholism. On his return from the war, he is incapable of re-integrating into society because he is completely unhinged. He drunkenly stumbles onto a yacht owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), leader of philosophical movement (read: cult) “The Cause.” The film follows their time together.
The reason I wanted to get that out of the way is, if you know PTA, you know that the actual plot isn’t what’s essential. His films are massive in scope yet incredibly intimate. Moreover, his cinematic techniques (and especially his cinematography) are incredible. He makes movies for movie people, no doubt. I was lucky enough to see The Master projected in 70mm, which I finally learned makes the colors more lush and the contrasts/shadows/lines much stronger. Boy, did it show. Even for those seeing this screened in normal theaters (35mm projection), all those things will stand out.
So how does The Master stand up, excluding the incredible imagery? The answer is a bit difficult. This is a really good movie, at the very least an impressive one. Still, it’s far from a masterpiece.
But it’s got a lot of good stuff, and as impressive as the technical aspects are, its greatest asset is the performances. Over a week later, I still can’t get over Phoenix and Hoffman’s work in this film. Phoenix’s every movement, word, tick, and mannerism made me tense and nervous as all hell about what he was gonna do next. This is borderline Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood good (side note: I’m sorry to people that haven’t seen that, because I’m probably starting to annoy them with all the references).
Take the two minutes to check out this teaser, which besides from being one of the best trailers I’ve ever seen, gives a good taste of how much Phoenix embodies his role.
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, while a lot less bombastic, is no less impressive. He plays a man that is self-deluded yet self-aware. If that sounds like a contradiction, it is. Hoffman pulls it off by giving Dodd a cocksure facade that cracks here and there ever so slightly. Often we don’t even notice. He’s a man that is very self-doubting and, deep-down, rather weak in resolve.
I feel bad for not equally praising Amy Adams’ performance as his wife, Peggy Dodd. I mean, she does do a fantastic job, but the role never quite reaches the same level. There are a lot of hints that she’s got more to her than meets the eye, but she never gets her proper due.
The only other major thing that I haven’t delved into is the underlying themes. There are a lot, and I’m not really experienced enough to cover all of them, but one thing that will stand out to most people is the extreme amount of sex and sexuality. Both Quill and Dodd are, at some level, dominated by it. I would say that the titular Master isn’t Dodd at all, but Sex.
Quill fantasizes about the women he sees being naked. Hell, in the first scene he fake humps a woman made out of sand by other sailors. His very existence seems dominated by his uncontrollable sexual desires. With Dodd, we definitely get the impression that his deep self-consciousness extends to his sexuality, whereas Peggy is fairly dominant in that regard. Dodd introduces himself with a long list of phony titles (“Nucular Physicist”) and ends with, “But above all, I am a man.” This line comes across as heavily practiced, and thus even less authentic than the other claims.
But even with all of its strengths, the flaws hold The Master back from reaching that next level. There’s so much going on in this movie, and while I’m sure there’s a lot to unlock, it feels distant. It just doesn’t quite hit everything that it ambitiously tries to reach. Certain major plot events happen with almost no mention, and while that’s not an inherent flaw, I don’t think PTA handles them well enough for us to call them great artistic choices. It almost comes across as sloppy.
As I’m sure you can all tell, I’ve got mixed feelings about this movie. But still, I’m thinking about it over a week later and I think I will be for a few more. The Master has staying power and for all the good and bad, it’s ultimately a movie that separates itself from the pack by being different. It’s not some over-done art-house piece or big-budget, pseudo-intellectual fluff. It’s a film that wants to say something. For that, at least, I can say that The Master is worth seeing.
So yeah, there ya go. That’s how you’re supposed to do a review, right?
Next week I’m going to get back to some analysis in what might be my favorite genre: offbeat romances/romantic comedies. I’ll look at how the fantastic Silver Linings Playbook handles gender, sexuality, and maybe even the mental illness bits if I’m feeling really ambitious.