‘The Master’ harnesses cinema’s power to maximal effect – a film review

September 21, 2012

Before I get into the aesthetic beauty of the Master, including the film’s music, cinematography, editing, mise-en-scène and—most of all— the acting, allow me to present you with a test. Watch these two teaser trailers the film’s director Paul Thomas Anderson put together to build anticipation for the film. The first one, released earlier this year, featured Joaquin Phoenix:

Then there arrived one featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman:

Now, if those two clips excited you about what you will see acting-wise when these two extremely different characters meet in the film, you should love the Master. If you expect anything else, you may be just a tad disappointed.

Though the chatter of buzz surrounding this film has been around Anderson’s take on the birth of Scientology, his preoccupation seems more focused on the two men at the film’s heart. Beyond their dynamic, the cult created by Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd only serves to magnify the intense relationship of these two men. Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is sucked into the world of “The Cause” only by the interest Lancaster shows in Freddie. Freddie, a rapscallion before he meets Lancaster, easily falls in line with calling him Master, as the followers of the Cause do. Anderson stays so in tuned with Freddie and the Master that the film becomes more about the cult of personality than the cult of any pseudo religion.

The film first sets up the rootless Freddie as a sailor in the Pacific during World War II who seems to have missed most of the fighting. He and his mates kill time jerking off on the shoreline and making sand sculptures of female figures in the wet sand. As a radio transmission announces VJ Day and the end of combat, Freddie crawls around artillery shells in his ship’s armory, making a drink from whatever chemicals he can find: an alcoholic beyond alcohol.

After the war, he receives a psychological exam via a Rorschach test where all he sees is “pussy” and “cock.” After his discharge, he floats from one job to another. They both end in violent confrontations. Freddie is one lost, primal soul. Phoenix plays him brilliantly, speaking out of only the left side of his mouth. Even his left eye stays wider open than his right. He laughs whenever someone asks him to share what he thinks or feels. He walks hunched over and stands crooked with one arm twisted backward, the heel of his hand resting on his hip. He looks like a 70-year-old man with osteoporosis.

After being chased off a farm at his last job, Freddie stows on to a cruise ship departing a harbor. He springs over the railing just as the vessel pulls away with a zest unseen until that moment. Again at sea, Freddie seems to have rediscovered his verve. This is where he meets the Master.

There Will Be Blood (2007), Anderson’s previous film, featured no dialogue for the first half-hour. In the Master, a similar thing occurs, as Freddie never seems to connect with anyone in a true give and take conversation until he meets Lancaster. During their first conversation, it is revealed they had met on board sometime off-screen on the night the ship had set sail. However, Freddie seems to have been too drunk to remember. “I don’t have any problems,” Freddie says and squeezes out a laugh/sigh. “I don’t know what I told you.”

“You’re aberrated,” the Master tells him, and Freddie laughs again with his crooked uncomfortable smile. This marks the first dynamic conversation on-screen— a true exchange— and the start of bonding between these two men. These two may have not only met earlier but may have met in another life. It will soon turn out past lives are a part of Dodd’s doctrine.

But Lancaster is not the only one with power here. Just as the Master has created his own culture, history and rules of living, Freddie too is an inventor. He has brewed up a drink of household chemicals that can possibly kill. “You have to know how to drink it,” he tells the Master. Lancaster is charmed and fascinated by this concoction. The only reason he seems to allow Freddie aboard the chartered cruise ship wedding of his daughter seems to be for the stowaway’s ability to concoct this cocktail. But Freddie also offers honesty unparalleled by any of the followers of the Master’s Cause. While everyone else, including Lancaster’s wife (Amy Adams playing cold and distant), seem like sycophants who follow the Master in order to be like him, Freddie offers something better. He is Lancaster’s best friend, and I mean best friend with the devotion of a dog. Freddie enjoys the teachings for what they are: games to play for the Master’s love.

One of the more intense moments of the film occurs early in Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship, on board the ship, when Lancaster offers Freddie “processing” (a reference to Scientology). This indoctrination involves a ritual in the form on an interview that is recorded. The Master asks Freddie a series of yes or no questions about his personality. When the Master asks Freddie whether he is unpredictable, Freddie responds with a fart. “Silly animal,” the Master tells him.

When Lancaster declares Freddie has finished his first round of processing, Freddie asks for more like an eager child. The Master agrees, but only if Freddie promises not to blink during the next series of questions. If he does blink, he will have to start over from the first question. During this second level of processing, the questions and answers prove stomach-churning, probing even deeper into Freddie’s personal life (“Have you ever had sex with a member of your family?”). Not only does Freddie not blink, but he sheds tears from holding his eyes open. For what some will consider trauma, to Freddie it’s about complying to the rules of a game. The fact that he “cries” as part of the game and not the trauma, heightens the character. It’s a powerful moment for Phoenix. I have only seen that done once before: in one of Andy Warhol’s screen tests when Ann Buchanan, a Bohemian follower of the art scene that thrived among the Beat generation, resists blinking for the entire 4-and-a-half-minutes of the reel of 16mm film that comprised these series of “screen tests.” It offers an interesting dichotomy with response to a true-life figure with the cult of personality.

Freddie’s primal mannerisms are further highlighted later in the film when he sits in the corner of a home where Lancaster has paid a visit in order to share his teachings. As the room erupts in song, Freddie sits there like a resting beast… staring. If one thinks Freddie has seriously bought into the Master’s preaching, watch as all the women suddenly appear naked as the singing and dancing continues. They do not react to their own nudity, as this clearly represents what Freddie is “seeing.”

When police take Lancaster away from the home in handcuffs on a warrant for malpractice, the Master yells about the preposterous idea that police of this city would dare think they have jurisdiction over his body (his belief is that his soul has lived trillions of years, after all). Freddie lashes out to defend the Master, and the police need four to five men to hold him down and cuff him. Meanwhile, the Master yells, “Freddie, stop!”

The paradox of these two men is further on display when they are thrown into two neighboring jail cells. Freddie continues his rampage at the cell’s furnishings while the Master leans against one cot with one arm. “Your fear of capture and imprisonment is an implant from millions of years ago,” he yells at Freddie, “implanted with a push-pull mechanism.”

There is no belief system going on with a devout follower. This is a scary representation of programmed fundamentalism, one of the scariest aspects of our society. There are Christian movements whose members will murder abortion doctors to save theoretical lives, as there are Muslims who blow themselves up for their own cause. But these are news stories, things on paper or things that pass in 20-second soundbites. What more powerful way to shake up the film-going, escapism-searching audience than through two intense character sketches on the big screen?

The director achieves this masterfully, if you will pardon the pun. Not only is The Master about a love affair between these two but a third man: the director himself. Everything he does in the film serves to magnify these two great actors’ performances. He did the same for Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Tom Cruise in Magnolia (1999), Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. All of those films and performances served to enhance their careers as actors.

The dialogue in the Master (Anderson also wrote the original script) is never more efficient than in that “processing” session described earlier. Phoenix does much when he spits out one-word answers to the Master’s terse, biting questions. The film may sound long at two hours and 15 minutes, but I can appreciate a film that earns a long runtime, and the Master does this, even if it is only about the dynamic of two men in a relationship. The film has a hypnotic quality. The camera is allowed to linger in order to activate the viewer’s own imagination and knowledge of history of the times, as the film is filled with subtle postwar trauma. Anderson does wonders not only in these moments that linger, recalling Kubrick and Malick, but he does something miraculous and rare with placement of a camera and the scenery it captures. He catches almost tactile moments of the time. The viewer will notice transporting details when the camera pans over part of a car, allowing a moment for the viewer to notice the gap between the door and the quarter panel, the dust on the paint, the sheen on the glass, the design of the side-view mirror. Early in the film, as sailors back from the war climb a circular staircase, the grime in the corner of the stairwell and the echo of footsteps says more about the era than the uniforms alone. It’s a refined moment of attention to detail unparalleled in any earlier film by Anderson. He has attained another level of mastery of mise-en-scène.

Clearly tempting the director and his cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., in some indulgence in imagery is the fact they shot on 65mm film stock. This makes the film perfect for the big screen, especially if you can find a theater screening the movie in 70mm. However, as an intimate drama, it sounds counter-intuitive to have bothered with such film for such a presentation. It is not. These are some large personalities that inform the film, and what better testament to such grandiose figures than large format film. Their occasional juxtaposition to the open sea and vast desert landscapes translate to not only breathtaking imagery but as a metaphor for these people who indeed believe they have souls older than the earth.

Another grand element of the film is its score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, who also worked with Anderson on There Will Be Blood. The clunk in the music’s soundtrack that introduces Freddie and his fellow seaman is the same sound of Freddie squeezing the lost drops of his drink from a flask later in the film. From the creepy clarinet that provides the score to Freddie’s “mixology” in the photo lab at the store where he is first seen working to the sweeping strings that augment the open sea, Anderson does not waste a single note of the score. Meanwhile, Greenwood seems to channel Ligeti in the mix of beauty and cacophony of the ever-shifting music.

The director also uses popular music of the era with enthralling results. Just as Anderson used Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” to ominous effect in Boogie Nights (1997), he re-contextualizes Ella Fitzgerald singing “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” early in the Master. Though it does not feel nearly as stressful as the botched drug deal in Boogie Nights, the song is just as effectively utilized, as the placement of the lyrics and images are not left to haphazard atmospherics. Anderson’s framing flows as musically as Fitzgerald’s patient, silky voice. Edits are placed at the right moments as the camera glides along, always watching Freddie, as he flirts with a female co-worker.

But the real love affair is that between Freddie and the Master, and it is an epic thing to watch unfold. Like any fiery love affair, it does burn itself out by film’s end. When it does, Anderson presents a pair of enlightening moments that seem to reveal an unseen depth to Freddie, best served for the audience to discover. The Master will beguile those starved for a powerful character drama, and, once again, Anderson does not let down, as he continues to grow into one of the handful of great original directors who can maintain a vision and pull it off within the high-profile world of the Hollywood system.

Hans Morgenstern

One more trailer:

The Master is Rated R and runs 137 min. It opens in wide release today. If you want to know where to catch the Master in 70mm, jump over to this great Paul Thomas Anderson fan site. Annapurna Pictures hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

10 Responses to “‘The Master’ harnesses cinema’s power to maximal effect – a film review”


  1. Outstanding review, Hans. This fine film deserves nothing less.

    Due to the disagreeable audience and circumstances last night, I’m watching this admirable work for a second viewing today alone and elsewhere. Although I would have seen The Master more than once during its theatrical run, I only wish my first viewing would have been more pleasurable (no fault of Anderson and company).

    • indieethos Says:

      Where did you see this? That’s why I hate going opening weekend to anything. That “first to see it” crowd is often there with the wrong motivations. This is an intelligent subtle film that due to Hubbard hype sets itself up for some wrong interpretation. Ebert even reviewed it all wrong.


  2. I watched it last night at the Paragon in the Grove due to my friends wanting to see it there. The crowd was horrible, and prior circumstances added to my mentally not being able to lose myself in the film.

    So I caught the 12:40 showing today at Cobb theater in Dolphin with a very small audience, and spent a great deal of it crying. There was a lot of Freddie’s story that resonated with me, and I’m still pretty shaken up by the experience. I’ve known people like Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) and can respect determined, strong-willed women like that.

    My taste in movies varies widely, depending on my mood. But The Master is on a very short list of movies that I am grateful for having seen, for the therapeutic experience I was provided at the appropriate time in my life; The Trial (1962) and 3-Iron (2004) were two others.

    • indieethos Says:

      Wow. Yes, it’s a very human movie. Amy Adams is always great, too. But the humanity of that loner Freddie was amazingly focused thanks to both the actor and director.

  3. Tom Dominick Says:

    Oh, Puhhlease.

  4. Kathe Says:

    You mention some very interesting details that I haven’t seen in other reviews of The Master.

  5. Mark Webb Says:

    Well considered and written overview, and I’m in agreement with most of it’s assertions. The only surprise here was lack of any mention of the film’s underlying theme. This, to me, is what felt Kubrick-esque in it’s oh so subtle delivery.
    I strongly recommend that viewers listen closely and leave pondering the softly spoken phrases sprinkled within “The Master” – these quotable gems, aligned with the plot’s intrinsic metaphor'(s), just might reveal The Master'(s) true identity.

    • indieethos Says:

      Thanks a lot. Sure, I’ll check yours our. I actually went back and saw it a second time with an audience. It holds up excellent. One of my favorite films of the year. Anderson is growing as a director who knows how to work the art form to transcendent levels.

  6. conordcfc Says:

    I thought the film was a mixed bag, a trio of top performances, great visuals and music, but a story that, at times was lacking! Great review, check out mine when you get the time http://conordcfc.wordpress.com/2012/11/19/film-review-the-master-2012/


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