Friday, September 28, 2012

Definitely an Oxymoron: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

Joaquin Phoenix & Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master

I’m not really surprised that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie The Master is as atrocious as it is. This is, after all, the filmmaker who’s inflicted Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and There Will be Blood (2007) upon us. But I do marvel anew at the superlatives and fulsome praise being lavished on Anderson by the majority of film critics, even though the over-praising of this director, who actually has little of value to offer, is also par for the course. The Master is being festooned with adjectives – audacious, brilliant, masterful – that are more rightly applied to genuine filmmakers, talents such as Robert Altman, Orson Welles, Jean Renoir and Steven Spielberg, directors who've actually made movies that last and have impacted on the cinematic medium in new and unique ways. In fact, The Master, which Anderson wrote as well, isn't deserving of any commendations at all. It’s a film that is rife with idiotic, pulpy dialogue, mannered, artificial acting, sloppy plotting and a storyline that, despite its obvious pretensions to the contrary, doesn't add up to anything memorable at all.

The film’s plot – note Spoilers ahead – flimsy as it is, revolves around an alcoholic, disturbed WWII vet, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who after some post-war adventures, ends up on a boat commandeered by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), aka The Master, leader of a putative cult known as The Cause. Dodd and his supportive wife Peggy (Amy Adams) bring Freddie into their fold – a decision they soon come to regret – and the men’s relationship, a father-son bond of sorts, soon collapses. But not soon enough for me, I must confess. I knew we were in for some problems when, at the outset of the film Freddie fucks a sandcastle on the beach. Yes, you read that right; it was a female sandcastle, by the way, as Freddie is a womanizer of no small order. But that ridiculous scene – how could it be otherwise? – is only the first of many, many moments in the film that beggar belief. (The absurd raining frogs scene in Magnolia was a portent of The Master's sandcastle sequence.) The ridiculous and laughable one where Dodd capers about singing a jig surrounded by naked women of all ages and sizes runs a close second. But it’s so ineptly staged that what seems to be a figment of Freddie’s own lustful imagination, which would, at least make sense, is later referred to – incredibly – as having actually happened by Peggy. But, of course, credulity is not Anderson’s strong suit and hasn't been since his second film Boogie Nights (1997), an admittedly half decent movie about the American porn industry that, despite some smart scenes and a few great performances, was the first indication that Anderson didn't really know how to shape a film or fashion a coherent storyline. (For the record, I've not seen Hard Eight, his 1996 debut.) The Master, like its immediate predecessors, is to a high degree incoherent and lacking in deep thought, though P.T. Anderson has fooled many a gullible critic into thinking otherwise. In fact, it might be even more incoherent than the others.

Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master
For one, it doesn't make sense that Dodd, who is seeking societal acceptance from the rich society matrons who flock to his ‘religion’ (an amalgam of the mind manipulation techniques of Scientology, the science fiction tropes of Raëlism and Shirley MacLaine’s past-lives mumbo jumbo) would have anything to do with Freddie, who is so prone to violent outbursts and actions that he creates untold damage to The Cause’s image wherever he goes. (It's similar to the idiotic conceit in Magnolia where Tom Cruise's self help maven, who's supposed to be an expert in teaching guys how to pick up women, rants that his viewers should "Respect the cock! And tame the cunt!". And that vulgar approach is going to help in attracting the ladies, how?) Of course, if Anderson had provided the modicum of background to Dodd’s life trajectory, we might understand his emotional attraction to Freddie, but we learn next to nothing about where Dodd comes from, what he hopes to accomplish with The Cause (he’s convicted of unlawfully removing money from a supportive foundation, but we never find out why he’s removed the funds) or even whether he believes in the vision he is peddling. No doubt, Anderson would point to a picture like Citizen Kane which also withholds information about its main figure, Charles Foster Kane, and shows how he is perceived differently by various sectors of society. But, of course, that film eventually reveals something pertinent about the man, particularly in its conclusion which explains what the word “Rosebud,” his last utterance, means. But the niceties of motivation or characterization aren't for Anderson. He couldn't care less about that, and thus rarely provides coherence, or if he tries, he does in a manner that doesn't add up. Remember Paul Dano’s preacher in There Will Be Blood decrying his congregation’s lusting after women when there was barely a single female to be found in the movie? (In The Master, Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie that his father is making it all up as he goes along. Could Anderson be doing the same when he shows up on set? It would explain the slapdash nature of his films.) As for Freddie, one presumes Dodd is a father-figure for him (in his interrogation/training by Dodd, he says his father is dead), but we’re not really sure since his sudden conversion to Dodd’s philosophy doesn't ring true. Freddie certainly seems skeptical about Dodd’s fixation on reincarnation and spiritual development. But then again, Anderson himself doesn't seem aware of how Dodd is to be perceived. In a key scene where Dodd, in front of his acolytes is challenged by a skeptic, the back and forth argument between the two is so badly dramatized that it’s never clear if Andeson believes that the skeptic has a point, or if Dodd does, or if neither of them do. And Dodd’s sudden barking out of “Pig Fuck!” during their debate is one of those over-the-top declarations (Daniel Day-Lewis’s ‘Woof woof’ in There Will be Blood was another) that jar you into awareness of the picture's artificiality and self-conscious staginess.

Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood
There’s also the matter of the ramshackle nature of Anderson’s plotting; Freddie is told during his indoctrination into the tenets of The Cause – while Dodd vigorously questions him – that if he blinks the Q & A has to start from the beginning, but when he does blink that doesn't happen. Did Anderson forget to stick to Dodd’s own declaration or did he like the take so much he decided to disregard it? I don’t know. But it’s just a small example of how so much of the movie feels false and inauthentic. (We’re also supposed to buy that the mother of Freddie’s girlfriend, whom he was seeing when she was 16 years old, wouldn't have had a problem with their relationship. That acceptance would be unlikely now, but in the 1950s, never!) A bigger example of the film’s shoddiness is how, though filmed entirely in Hawaii and California, it is supposed to, at times, take place in Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Neither the West Coast nor Hawaii look anything like East Coast USA. As for Anderson’s own minimalist recreation of the 1950s, he provides a song here, a suit and hat there, but it is so arbitrary as to further push the film out of the realm of realism. (The also unduly praised Mad Men, for all its superficiality and glossiness, at least looks like the period piece it’s supposed to be.) Maybe I'm guilty of nitpicking here with specific moments in the movie, but The Master, taken as a whole, doesn't have anything pertinent or relevant to say about cults, conformity, emotional abuse, repressed sexuality, psychological disturbances or any number of hot button subjects. Anderson, like an idiot savant, latches on to the pretence of utilizing them in order to make some grand statement about the world as we know it. But beneath the pretence, The Master is profoundly empty, a hollow film that really is about nothing at all. Mind you, you wouldn't know this from the reviews, many of which, foolishly often suggest that the picture, if it hasn't worked its magic on you, needs a second viewing so you can better perceive what hidden treasures were missed the first time around. No dice. If a film doesn't initially convince you of even a hint of brilliance – and obviously brilliant is the last word I’d use to describe The Master – it won’t be any better or rewarding when you sit through it again, unless you’re a masochist.

Paul Thomas Anderson
Incidentally, having now seen two of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, There Will be Blood and The Master, with paying audiences, it’s clear that these films, adored as they may be by various critics, don't necessarily connect with ordinary filmgoers. They were laughing at –  and not with – There Will be Blood when I saw it. And if the quiet after the screening of The Master – a few people walked out early on – was respectful, it seemed more an obligation on the audience’s part to admire it and less a connection made by them with what was unveiled on screen. At least, the other mediocre Anderson, filmmaker Wes, made a movie, Moonrise Kingdom, that resonated with audiences this past summer. Unlike P.T., he can at least be said to be an original director, however uninteresting his uniqueness is. Paul Thomas Anderson usually reminds you of his betters (There Will be Blood was a movie about the 19th century push/pull between capitalism and religion that would have been catnip for Orson Welles, or John Huston, but Anderson decidedly botched the execution), or other equally failed fellow filmmakers whose work is vastly overrated. (The Master alternately evokes Terence Malick’s picture pretty but flat The Tree of Life, or the disastrous films from Stanley Kubrick’s late career oeuvre, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, pictures that seemed not to have the slightest awareness of how people speak or act in real life. To be fair, at least Malick and Kubrick have a cinematic eye;  the 'blind' Anderson decidedly does not.) The Master, in its positioning of two (supposedly) strong men at its centre is also something of a carbon copy of There Will be Blood, though even more scattered than that mess of a movie.

Tom Cruise in Magnolia
And that brings me to, perhaps, the key failing of all in Anderson’s pictures, a flaw that should be most apparent to viewers – and film critics: the acting, or rather overacting, which is ubiquitous in Anderson’s work. From Tom Cruise’s obnoxious self-help motivator in Magnolia to Daniel Day Lewis’s blustery Elmer Fudd-like tycoon in There Will be Blood to Joaquin Phoenix’s perpetually sneering Freddie, the actors in Anderson’s world usually come across as talentless even when they, like Day-Lewis and Phoenix, are among the best actors extant. (Cruise is not in their league, of course, but even he’s never been as bad as he was in Magnolia. Oddly enough, the inflections all three give in these respective films is identical, over-emphasized and/or overly enunciated.) If you had never seen him in a picture before you could be forgiven for thinking that Joaquin Phoenix, whose Freddie is all tics and mannerisms and nothing but, has no abilities as a thespian when, in reality, his filmography (Ladder 49, Walk The Line, We Own the Night, Two Lovers) is proof positive how superb he almost always is on screen. Hoffman managed to give superior performances in Anderson’s previous movies, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but not in Punch-Drunk Love, the Adam Sandler dysfunctional family drama, where he screams incessantly. He is undone, however, in The Master though he only screams on occasion. There’s nothing for him to do with the barely written character he’s been saddled with, nor can he make Anderson’s leaden, fake dialogue sing. I think when actors like Hoffman, Julianne Moore (in Boogie Nights) and Jason Robards (in Magnolia) do great work in Anderson’s films, it’s because they’re disregarding his (mis)direction. Amy Adams, too, has nothing of depth to play in The Master, though she gamely gives it her all. The inexplicable accolades the trio of actors are receiving does, however, suggest that the critics wouldn't know good acting if it bit them on the ass. How else can one interpret their fidelity to what is so clearly some of the worst mannerisms these normally skilled performers have ever evinced?

There’s not much else to remark on about The Master. Jonny Greenwood’s portentous score is more suited to a cheap horror movie. Mihai Malaimare Jr’s pedestrian cinematography and David Crank and Jack Fisk’s ordinary production design are also further exemplars of the movie’s mediocrity. (Note: I didn't see the movie in its 70mm version, but I can’t imagine that would improve it much, or that it was vital for Anderson to shoot it in that format. The rich virtues of 70mm are more suited to huge elaborate productions like Apocalypse Now or Lawrence of Arabia than they are to small-scaled dramas like The Master.) Anderson’s directorial technique, long shots to close-ups, seemingly randomly shuffled, is baffling as it adds little if anything to the movie’s mood or tone. His lengthy takes, even tedious ones like Freddie’s incessant practising of The Cause’s techniques, usually impress only the reviewers. Anderson really is a filmmaker whose movies are like vapour, films that dissipate, for the most part, as soon as you’re out of the theatre save for a few lingering memories of god-awful scenes, or laughable snippets of dialogue. Titling his latest film The Master is as good an example of an oxymoron as one can imagine.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be doing a course on film censorship beginning Oct. 5.and reprising his course on director Sidney Lumet, starting on Oct.15. 


  1. This was a very funny piece. Thanks for the laughs. I even appreciate your insights and point of view on all the things I disagreed with. THAT is great film criticism - make me laugh, engage me in a dialogue on the page, infuse your commentary with personality and do it from a place that, in spite of my disagreeing with ALMOST everything you said, forces me to think about WHY I disagree. (Even that is something I need to think about, but that's a good thing.) It's also important - at least to me - to feel a writer's passion for cinema. I almost care less whether I agree or disagree, It's that glorious gooseflesh I get when someone writes - positively or negatively - about the medium that means more to me than almost anything and I feel their love for the medium by how passionately they write about it. I do, for the record, passionately agree with your response to the woeful Magnolia and I can also assure you, you're not missing much in Hard Eight, though it does have a promising first half hour, but not much else. As for The Master, I could not take my eyes off of it and the slightest noise in the audience made me wish I had my automatic Russian assault rifle handy. That said, I left the theatre wholly satisfied, BUT having absolutely no fucking idea why I liked it. My second viewing will be the true test. Will it hold up? Will my response and understanding of why I like(d) it come to the fore. Or will I come to YOUR senses? I'll find out on cheap Tuesday I guess. :-)

  2. How can I say this? "THE MASTER" bored me. It was one of the most boring and pointless movies I have ever seen in recent years. The only other Paul Thomas Anderson movie I have ever seen was "THERE WILL BE BLOOD". Actually, I enjoyed that particular movie - aside from its first 5 to 10 minutes and its final scene. But I did not enjoy "THE MASTER". I thought it had some good acting. And I tried hard to understand what Anderson was trying to say in this film. Also, I have no intention of seeing it for a second time. I now realize that I have no interest in what Anderson was trying to say.

  3. Finally - a critic who hasn't drunk the PT Anderson kool-aid. I wholeheartedly agree with every observation you have here (save for your criticism of Kubrick's 'Barry Lyndon', which deliberately uses formal dialogue patterns to emphasize the strict social rituals that the main character labors under throughout the film - all to great effect I felt.).

    Great views! Keep it up!

  4. Lazy and laughable criticism. The Master not only praise by many critics but also many filmmakers around the world , that prove you miss something. Did you ever try to challenge yourself to find a meaning of this film , or saw as an art form? I dare to say if Kubrick films release today , you will criticism his film like this article. Calling him blind cinematic eye made you film degree are worthless , can you made a film or writing a story are worthy to others people mention or talk about , if you can't , you shouldn't criticism him or others directors like that. It's expert carefully craft film from truly cinematic artist eye , frame to frame , shot to shot , almost dialogue are truly beautiful. if you don't find any good from this film, you're blind or know nothing about cinema.

    I feel sorry for your student because they teacher are blind and lack how to appreciate work of arts.

    English is not my first language , sorry for my grammar mistake.

  5. After giving due consideration to your review, I have only this to say:

    Pig fuck.

  6. Wow someone else gets it! PTA is one of the worst directors in modern Hollywood, if not ever, frankly. He's that bad. I mean anyone who can consistently churn out zero-star work is epically awful. There Will Be Blood wasn't bad *for an Oscar nominated movie*, it was BAD in general, compared to anything. It was bad compared to Transformers 2. It was bad compared to Uwe Boll's worst movies. It is totally pointless and lacking any coherent plot. One great performance in service of nothing means nothing. As a filmmaker and film critic myself, I don't understand this guy's adoration. He is a terrible director in every respect.