Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Master (2012)

Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

After serving in the Navy during WWII, severely alcoholic and volatile sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles to settle down upon his return to the United States. He drifts through multiple jobs, focusing more on mixing up tongue-melting moonshine that eventually gets him expelled on the accusation of poisoning a coworker. He ends up a stowaway on a private pleasure cruise headed by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), known generally as "Master". He claims to be an extremely learned, experienced scholar who has discovered a means of salvation through recalling memories of past lives. He has gained a devoted following through his book, and is working on the sequel when he finds Freddie hiding out on his ship. They become unlikely friends, and the sailor joins Master's entourage- much to the suspicion of Master's strict wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who fiercely works to protect her husband's reputation.

With a drawn-out, detail-oriented style of storytelling and several dedicated performances, The Master is the type of movie that a lot of "film people" understandably go for. The script tantalizingly draws from the larger-than-life historical figure of L. Ron Hubbard, while the camera artfully lingers over intimate period settings and scenic all-American vistas. In many ways it is a beautiful and thought-provoking film, cleverly distancing itself from the issue of "Is he making it all up?" and focusing more on "How can one man manipulate others into following his teachings?" Freddie's transition and transformation is the real narrative pull here, and while his character is loathsome and frequently unsettling, I did appreciate his unexpected journey and Phoenix's intense embodiment of the character (his off-kilter posture made me wicked uncomfortable for some reason, though). Hoffman is of course fantastic as the charismatic but somewhat explosive cult leader, but honestly I'm no longer impressed when he turns in a great performance. Like, we get it, guy, you're a consistently terrific actor. Tell me something I don't know. For me Amy Adams was actually the surprise standout. Her role isn't huge but she made an impact in several key scenes, and it was great to see her as a more serious, controlling character with very little of the vulnerability that often works its way into her parts.

HOWEVER. This movie's got some problems. My biggest issue is that I found it very unsatisfying as a whole. The pacing and story structure felt like they were gradually building up to something, but then there's barely a climax, and the ending is this nonentity. I'm not saying I needed some big blow-out or life-affirming message, but it would be nice to have SOMETHING to sort of round out the strange development of Freddie and Dodd's friendship and the former's uneven life story. I don't know, I guess I wanted more out of my time with these weird, unlikable characters. The Master is an interesting and intense film, and overall I did enjoy it, but the ending (or seeming lack thereof) left me with an empty feeling.


Pair This Movie With: Dang, I don't know. Personally I need to get around to finishing Anderson's filmography.


  1. I had a similar reaction. I walked out of The Master thinking that it was a film I could appreciate on an intellectual level, but it definitely left me wanting.

    Great performances - especially from Phoenix, who really just goes for it in scene after scene - but... *shrug*

  2. I really loved the final conversation between Hoffman and Phoenix. The way it was written, acted, and shot. I just didn't feel like the film built to anything that corresponded with that moment (the following few minutes I've slowly started to cut out in my mind). I can't explain it but The Master felt like a film with a finale and no idea of how to get there so it just kept building up in all sorts of directions until time ran out.

  3. I thought the same thing about the ending. It worked, but I was expecting a bit more.

  4. I just saw this and thought I'd be in the minority with this reaction but it turns out you feel the same way and so do your readers. Phew. That's a load off. I did love Amy Adams, but I guess I always do.