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David Poland

By David Poland poland@moviecitynews.com

Reviewing The Master

The Master is, at the same time, both completely familiar as something emerging from the mind of Paul Thomas Anderson and completely unfamiliar, as he has freed himself of traditional narrative considerations.

I don’t think of this as a movie that can really be spoiled. It is demanding of the viewer and each person will linger in the experience in their way. But if you want to go in clean, stop reading this now. I’m not going to offer up a blow-by-blow of the story, but a discussion of the ideas an techniques of the film.

The movie opens and we spend considerable time – not unlike There Will Be Blood – with one character, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quells. In Blood, the hands-on journey of Daniel Plainview to Oilman defines the entire film. There is some balance created by Eli Sunday, but he is really a reflection that clarifies Plainview.

Here, Paul Thomas Anderson has “corrected” that imbalance, though I don’t really think he was trying to respond to another film of his through this one. That said, the two characters here are of equal power. Freddie is the dominant presence in the film, as he is all male, stuck in perpetual emotional puberty. Joaquin Phoenix gives his most fevered performance to date.

Freddie’s opposite number is Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a snake oil salesman of self-help. Carefully coiffed and almost always “on,” like the big con artists of The Grifters, but without the sexual release, enjoyment of the con, and ultimate mental breakdown. Those things are all deferred to Freddie.

Driving Lancaster (rarely referred to by name and certainly not by “Lancaster,” while “Freddie” is always “Freddie”) is Amy Adams’ Mary Sue Dodd, whom I do not believe is ever referred to by “Mary Sue” in the entirety of the film. Hers is the smallest of the three major roles, but she drives the entire thing… not unlike the Julianne Moore character in Boogie Nights, but even more so. In some ways, she is the opposite number to Dirk Diggler’s mother in Boogie, unfettered by – like both older BN women – sexual confusion. Mrs. Dodd is a zealot, much more so than Mr. Dodd, and she eventually shows herself to be the driving force between the whole “movement” that Mr. Dodd fronts and sells so eloquently.

My take on the film, overall, is that Mrs. Dodd created Mr. Dodd out of the Freddie she found. The entire system of “beliefs” that Dodd is pushing seems designed to make a Lancaster out of a Freddie. And in the end, as we see both in Freddie and in Dodd, you cannot tame your inner Freddie, you can only sublimate him, presumably for your own good.

It’s worth considering all the water in this film. Water is considered to be a reflection of emotion in a dream state. The movie opens on a beach, there is the churning water behind the boat, seen in the trailer, Freddie/Dodd come together on a boat… even the major scene between The Dodds (described below) takes place as the water runs in the sink.

A friend, who hasn’t seen the picture, but knows the history of L. Ron Hubbard, refers back to Hubbard’s house-sharing pal Jack Parsons, a rich kid and literally a rocket scientist, with whom Hubbard lived in Pasadena in the 1940s. Tales of their debauchery are epic. I can’t begin to speak to their veracity. But some will argue that Freddie is a reflection of Jack or of the time these men partied together.

What I believe is that PTA took all of the stories about Hubbard and then threw away the restrictions of reality or truth… that this movie is not at all a biographical work about Hubbard or Scientology, but a poem of sorts drawn from the elements, speaking to themes of duality that Anderson has long had an interest in exploring. To say this movie is “about Scientology” would be like saying that Clerks 2 is “about McDonald’s.”

There are many “key scenes” in the film, but the two that I expect will be most discussed are, first, the one in the jail, where Dodd is brain right and Freddie is brain left, caged next to each other, Dodd calmly smoking a cigarette and Freddie literally destroying his cell.

The second is a sequence in which Dodd, with a few drinks in him, imagines all the women in his circle to be naked while enjoying a party. In the next scene, Mrs. Dodd comes to him and reminds him of his boundaries. She emotionlessly takes control of his penis as he washes his face at the sink and mirror and gives him sexual relief as she explains that he is sliding and better keep himself in check. It’s not the only time that Dodd cannot keep his inner Freddie under wraps, but it is the only time where we see the mechanism of his control.

There is no “meet cute” between Freddie and The Dodds in this film. It’s one of the things that makes clear that what we are seeing on the surface in not all there is to see. Freddie exists as a character – The Character – in the film before we meet The Dodds. Like the early mining sequences in TWBB, this opening chunk of the film has its own wonders and joys. Telling is a sequence in which as character who looks a lot like Dodd – played by W. Earl Brown – is provoked and eventually attacked by the then-department-store-photographer Freddie. This is what happens when “Dodd” enters Freddie’s world. Havoc. When Freddie enters Dodd’s world, there is a tempering of Freddie… but ultimately, there is no way to be with Freddie and fully sublimate Freddie.

Freddie and Dodd meet when Freddie turns up on the yacht where The Dodds are celebrating his daughter’s wedding, This is a natural moment at which a man might miss his wild youth… and voila, his wild life turns up. But after plenty of Freddie, Dodd ends up screaming – to himself? – “no one likes you… but me!” Freddie has to go. And his exit is seen by many as anti-climactic. Not me. Truly saying goodbye to your youthful self is a major event in a life. But Anderson being Anderson, it is not signaled and commented on in dialogue over and over.

That is the range of this film. It’s not a big narrative tale. But it’s like a pure narcotic, so strong that it needs to be cut to be consumed safely. Of course, Anderson is not out for safety.

Anderson has may flourishes in the film that are in line with Kubrick’s love of subtext. For instance, Kubrick created a world in which every woman was a redhead and even the curtains were framed by red as blue light watched the action in Eyes Wide Shut… Tom Cruise surrounded by his wife, played by the blue-eyed, then-red-headed Nicole Kidman. All the women in the lives of Dodd/Freddie in this film are also redheads.

As always, PTA makes a gorgeous movie. The images, the performances, the music… all of the very highest level. I have a great deal of respect for the choice to make a 70mm film almost 2 full decades since there has been a non-doc/IMAX release in the format. And it’s beautiful. I’ve seen it onscreen in two rooms and both were a sheer sensory joy. One could discuss for many hours whether this choice is PTA’s Freddie or Dodd in practice, as it is a choice that is both elegant and perverse. But artists being artists must always be accepted and celebrated.

This is probably PTA’s least accessible movie for general audiences. But it is also his most mature work as a filmmaker. Kubrick had puzzles in all of his films, but he died just before the release of his one true puzzle movie, Eyes Wide Shut. He offered even fewer clues to the subtext than Anderson has here. But this is a film for which a surface reading will offer some pleasures, but a sense of discomfort for many. And not just for “dumb people.” Some of the smartest film people I know walked away from a first screening feeling dazed and confused. But this is the kind of film that gets richer and more beautiful in multiple viewings and for years to come. And that is the true test of art. And Mr. Anderson, for all the choices he makes that one agrees with or disagrees with in a audience-reliant medium, is an artist, first and last, in and out, Freddie and Dodd. Thank goodness for that.

5 Responses to “Reviewing The Master”

  1. Keil Shults says:

    Will this replace the “review” on RT?

  2. Pispor Schitritch says:

    Yeah really, Clerks 2 is about sooooooooo much more than McDonalds.

    Coming To America? Now that’s a movie about McDonalds.

  3. etguild2 says:

    Very nice review. Excited for it.

    I am stunned that Terrence Malick finished “To the Wonder” so quickly speaking of auteur directors. Hope you can review it soon.

  4. me says:

    The MAster must have been the most boring movie I ever saw. Well, besides Morven Callar.

  5. Krillian says:

    My take – http://jermsguy.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-master-movie-review.html

    My wife left ten minutes before it ended, said it didn’t really matter how it ended because it was so slow. I liked it more than she did.

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“Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have come from a studio, but it still required a substantial chunk of outside financing, and at $35 million, it’s not even that expensive. No studio could find the $8.5 million it cost Dan Gilroy to make Nightcrawler. Birdman cost a mere $18 million and still had to scrape that together at the last minute. Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail—and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.”
~ Mark Harris On The State Of The Movies

How do you make a Top Ten list? For tax and organizational purposes, I keep a log of every movie I see (Title, year, director, exhibition format, and location the film was viewed in). Anything with an asterisk to the left of its title means it’s a 2014 release (or something I saw at a festival which is somehow in play for the year). If there’s a performance, or sequence, or line of dialogue, even, that strikes me in a certain way, I’ll make a note of it. So when year end consideration time (that is, the month and change out of the year where I feel valued) rolls around, it’s a little easier to go through and pull some contenders for categories. For 2014, I’m voting in three polls: Indiewire, SEFCA (my critics’ guild), and the Muriels. Since Indiewire was first, it required the most consternation. There were lots of films that I simply never had a chance to see, so I just went with my gut. SEFCA requires a lot of hemming and hawing and trying to be strategic, even though there’s none of the in-person skullduggery that I hear of from folk whose critics’ guild is all in the same city. The Muriels is the most fun to contribute to because it’s after the meat market phase of awards season. Also, because it’s at the beginning of next year, I’ll generally have been able to see everything I wanted to by then. I love making hierarchical lists, partially because they are so subjective and mercurial. Every critical proclamation is based on who you are at that moment and what experiences you’ve had up until that point. So they change, and that’s okay. It’s all a weird game of timing and emotional waveforms, and I’m sure a scientist could do an in-depth dissection of the process that leads to the discovery of shocking trends in collective evaluation. But I love the year end awards crush, because I feel somewhat respected and because I have a wild-and-wooly work schedule that has me bouncing around the city to screenings, or power viewing the screeners I get sent.
Jason Shawhan of Nashville Scene Answers CriticWire