DVD Review - The Master

The Master has to be the worst film I've seen from Paul Thomas Anderson. In the past 25 years of his career, Anderson hasn't directed that many films, not as many as contemporaries such as Steven Soderbergh, but, of the handful he's done, this ranks at the bottom. Admittedly, I've never been a fan of P.T. Anderson. The only time I felt he showed any uniqueness as a director was Punch-Drunk Love. All other times, he rode on the backs of great actors, which The Master tries to do but there comes a point where despite having great things on-board to distract, the ship itself has to be sturdy and strong and have some kind of course. Otherwise, you're just adrift at sea.

The Master has some of the worst writing of any of his films. The acting is fine, but Anderson's direction does little to contain or focus that acting. It barely works as a character study. The relationship between the two leads was unbelievable and the whole narrative lacked, making the piece overall boring. While I did enjoy the look of the film in general, the cinematography, the 70mm cinematography, isn't impressive in the slightest.

Oscar-nominee Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a sailor during the peacetime of the 1950s. He's an alcoholic and a man who can't stop thinking about sex. He bounces from job to job, including photographer and farm hand. He's literally run off from each of his jobs. He wanders onto a party boat that is filled with people led by a man named Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote and Doubt) who has been in three other P. T. Anderson films.

As with Adam Sandler's character Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love, Quell's behavior isn't all together explained, but given what Anderson shows us, an explanation could be inferred simply, but at least the audience knew what Egan wanted. He had a goal to which a trajectory could be clearly drawn. Here, Quell is merely adrift. He has no trajectory.

He seems to be a lost soul, which Anderson could be using as a metaphor for men of that period. Much in the same way that Ernest Hemingway referred to the men of post-World War I, Anderson could be making a corollary for men post-World War II being similarly disillusioned. It's not explicit that Quell's fatigue or frustration, for lack of a better term to explain his "lost generation" like status, is the result of being damaged by the war. In the text, Anderson points more toward a lost love as perhaps the source of Quell's broken nature.

Whatever the source, it makes Quell unknowingly prime and ready to be absorbed by Lancaster Dodd. Despite Anderson's dis-associations and denials, or perhaps the dis-associations and denials of the marketing machine for this film, Dodd is very reminiscent on paper of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. It's interesting because in Anderson's film Magnolia (1999). Tom Cruise co-starred as a bold and sexual, self-help guru. L. Ron Hubbard was basically himself a self-help guru that spun his philosophy into a religion with tax-exempt church status.

Hubbard called his self-help philosophy "Dianetics" and its method of application is seen used first by Dodd. How accurate Dodd's depiction of that method to the actual Dianetics is not for me to say, but clearly some inspiration from Hubbard was drawn for Dodd. In that regard, it makes Dodd the most interesting character. As such, I wish this film were a biographical sketch of Dodd or told more through Dodd's point of view.

Instead, Anderson makes Quell the center and its mostly through his eyes that we see everything, but nothing that Quell does or has happen to him is interesting in the slightest, mainly because he barely does anything while in the presence of Dodd. He basically just sits and watches Dodd command a room here and there. Along the way, an unexplained bond forms between the two, which both Phoenix and Hoffman sell, but with little help from Anderson.

The way that Phoenix reacts, Quell perhaps thinks what Dodd does is a kooky thing that's funny. It seems as if Quell gets entertainment from it. He also gets to be somewhat of a teacher's pet, a position that seems to suit both just fine. Yet, feelings the two have for one another supposedly grow and deepen but I don't know that I ever understood why. It all builds to a final scene between the two that had no emotional resonance for me.

I know that Anderson meant for what he calls "informal processing" to be the relationship building aspects that helps to sell Quell's bond to Dodd, but it isn't enough. A scene where Dodd is challenged and is accused of almost being a cult leader results in Quell defending Dodd, but in a way of which Dodd disapproves. Aside from giving him shelter and liking Freddie's self-made booze, I don't get if there is enough approval or positivity on Dodd's part to seduce Quell into his philosophy.

The cinematography certainly feels old-fashioned. The camera moves and the subsequent editing makes the film seem like it was produced in the 50s, the decade in which it's set. The only difference is the full, vivid color, being better than technicolor. The color is actually not the only difference. The nudity, the full-frontal from women, makes it definitely not of its era.

Some obvious tricks were a little too obvious like the constant shadows that Anderson cast on Phoenix. Jonny Greenwood's score was probably the only thing that worked for me and that for only the beginning of the film till Quell and Dodd meet. After which, I ceased to care until I was totally disengaged at the end.

One Star out of Five.
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 17 mins.


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