This review contains a kind of plot spoiler
There’s one way in which The Master outshines everything else made by Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s the best-looking film he’s ever done. The cinematography by Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. is absolutely amazing, and there’s no doubt it deserves the Oscar. It’s often difficult to describe great cinematography. We can say it’s ‘beautiful’, ‘atmospheric’, ‘visually arresting’, and so on, but it’s probably best just to see for yourself (click here for 56 screenshots).
And there are some very good scenes in the film. For example, there’s the first processing session on the boat between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and ‘the Master’, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Some of Dodd’s questions are wonderfully intrusive and he’s very insistent that his subject not blink as he answers; it’s intriguing to see if Freddie can do that, as he’s finally led into admitting he slept with his aunt. Another scene has a man at a party challenging the logic of Dodd’s beliefs, which results in a tense confrontation and a memorable concluding insult. And near the end when Freddie goes back to the house of the girl he once loved and finds that she’s long since married and moved away, it was poignant.
I really didn’t like There Will Be Blood (see review) mainly because I found the two central performances off-putting and that’s not the case here. Phoenix is particularly affecting in the scene just mentioned, but he’s excellent throughout the movie. His weird facial and bodily contortions engage the audience; you can’t help wondering what’s going on inside him. And Hoffman, and Amy Adams as the master’s wife, are also very good. (All the other characters in the movie are pretty minor, including the one played by Laura Dern). But I have to say that again I’m a bit mystified that a PTA film has gotten so much praise. In the Sight & Sound year-end poll for example, it was deemed best film of 2012. As I was watching it and really enjoying the look of it, I couldn’t help also thinking of the many ways the story could have been better. Here are a few of them:
The early scenes of the film are set in the Pacific during World War Two (you get the impression Anderson had been watching Malick’s The Thin Red Line) and though they’re nice to look at, we don’t learn much about Quell. Then he’s back in the US and before long we see him senselessly attacking one of his photographic subjects in his department-store job. It might have been better to first delve into his past and learn why he’s such a conflicted, confused character before we get such an outburst. It’s mentioned in the film that his father died drunk and his mother’s in a ‘looney bin’, but just mentioned, nothing more.
I also wanted more evidence of why people follow Dodd i.e. scenes of him saying wise or interesting things that could draw people in, or making speeches to his followers that were charismatic in some way. This aspect of The Master reminded me - in a bad way - of the role played by Eli (Paul Dano) in There Will Be Blood. Again Anderson is giving us a religious leader who doesn’t seem to have many leadership qualities. There are many, many scenes of ‘processing’ - usually strange ritualistic interviews - that I found it hard to care about because they seemed unconnected to any normal human interaction. Once again Anderson seems to be fascinated by a religious world that does nothing for me, and I suspect for many other viewers. And it seems strange that he should focus on this. Is it some form of penance for the outré sexuality of Boogie Nights?
On top of that, there are odd things in the film which seem underdeveloped. At a party, all the women- and only the women - are suddenly stark naked. Why? I’d be interested to find out what the director thought about this scene, since he doesn’t let on in the actual movie. At one point I thought the story was going to develop into an interesting conflict with the mainstream authorities because Dodd and Quill get arrested. But that turn of the plot is soon forgotten. And near the end the film moves to England. Is there enough justification for this shift? It seemed to me that not much happened there.
Most of all, I just felt that the film needed more conflict. Quill falls under the spell of the master, defends him, beats up people who go against him, but never fully fits into the ‘family’. And the master’s wife disapproves of his drinking, his free spirit. That’s about it. (That’s the plot spoiler: that unfortunately there are no plot twists to spoil in this movie). Near the end there’s an interesting conversation between the two men in which Dodd talks of their ‘future lives’ and is openly hostile to Freddie. But that tension between them comes too late. Before then they have many arguments but always in a father-son way, never with any real threat of a rift. I wish a real rift had developed between them earlier in the movie. As the old cliché goes, conflict forces characters to reveal their true selves, and that’s particularly needed here because Quell is not good at verbalizing and, despite Phoenix’ fine performance, we don’t get to know Freddie well enough.
The Observer review of The Master said “once we've established that Lancaster is a phoney and Freddie a fuck-up, the film seems not to know where to go next.” I have to say I agree. Despite that Sight & Sound poll, and far more than with There Will Be Blood, there seem to be quite a few critics this time breaking rank and daring to suggest PTA has gone astray. I don’t bring this up because I’m hoping for his ‘comeuppance’ or anything like that. I do it because he proved early on in his career that he had huge talent and I want him to rediscover that. In his last three films he’s forgotten the wonderful in-your-face brio of those earlier works and has attempted to be more stately and grandiose. To me he’s ‘matured’ in all the wrong directions. It’s like he wants to be David Lean now instead of Martin Scorsese, but he’s copying the David Lean of Ryan’s Daughter rather than the David Lean of Lawrence of Arabia. His films now are more refined, more respectable, but also more dull.
For what’s it’s worth, this is how I would rate all of his movies so far, with 4 stars the maximum and anything less than 3 stars not really worth watching.
Hard Eight ***½
Boogie Nights ****
Punch Drunk Love **½
There Will Be Blood **
The Master ***