Quick Review: The Master (dir. by Paul T. Anderson)


If I had a choice between watching the worst of Paul T. Anderson’s films and the best of Paul W.S. Anderson’s films, P.T. would win just about every time. Unless of course it’s about Event Horizon. I love that film, but that’s for a different review.

Sometimes, you walk into a movie expecting one thing, and are given something completely different. I decided to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master on a whim. It is as amazing as it is strange. Most of the movies I’ve seen lately have been event based, but it was nice to catch a film that seemed more character driven. The film’s protagonist, Freddy Quell is as unorthodox as they come, and I wouldn’t be shocked in the least to see Joaquin Phoenix get some major recognition for this. It’s not without it’s problems, though I’d see it again in a heartbeat.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not terribly qualified for a movie like this – it’s very “art house”, much like Refn’s Drive and Von Trier’s Melancholia (one of which I own and the other I love). A lot of it for me felt like the story wasn’t really going anywhere, though I loved the character interactions. Reviewing a film like this requires a bit more depth and understanding of cinema on a whole than what I currently have. For me,  there are moments where it almost feels like Anderson said..”Well, they did this…” with someone asking him “And then…?” right after every new point. By the time you’re done with the film, you may ask yourself just what it was you just saw (or what was the point of it, more or less). Then again, I had a similar feeling with the first half of Melancholia and adore that film because of it’s second half. What rescues The Master are the performances, particularly Phoenix’s, that help raise the movie when it threatens to sputter. This, along with the cinematography, really adds to things. The film is beautiful, especially when viewed in the 70MM format. There are some great wide-angle shots, the framing is sweet and the focus is brilliant considering you’re not watching a digital presentation. That’s at least what I took from it, visually. Anderson can make a film look beautiful.

If you can catch a 70MM showing, definitely try to do so.

Okay, that’s sweet, but what is the movie about? 

The Master is basically the story of Freddy Quell, a former Naval officer who doesn’t quite walk a straight road. He has a penchant for two things – an explosive temper and the ability to make moonshine out just about any liquid. From his first line, one gets the idea that something is just a little off with him, and it confused me a little in the opening scenes. I guess what I expected was a little different from what I got. Watching someone compulsively masturbate on a beach will do that to you.

Freddy, who finds himself in some odd jobs and situations, stumbles his way onto a boat and finds himself the next morning the guest of one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a group that follow a movement called “The Cause”. Dodd asks Freddy to stay and make more of his special brew. This becomes the start of a journey for both individuals. Freddy comes to find that Dodd is quite the interesting person, being invited to have his entourage stay with different friends and share with them the way he’s found to improve upon the human condition. There is a beautiful 10 minute question and answer auditing session between Dodd and Quell that’s a great example of the acting and focus in the film. Everyone seemed to go all out with their performances, which comes to no surprise given how well There Will Be Blood turned out. Amy Adams also has a good role as Dodd’s wife, supporting him through his plans in a number of ways. Having worked with Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the past, they seem to have some great chemistry together. Much of what she did was a little shocking for me, but she handled her scenes very well.

In trying to save Freddy from himself and his reckless ways, The Master doesn’t quite lead the audience where they think it’ll go. Not that it has to, mind you. However, if you’re walking into the film expecting something grand by the end of the film, you may find yourself somewhat disappointed. At least, my audience didn’t seem to voice a lot of good words for the story, though most of what I did hear was praise for the actors. I loved it, but it was just started to lose me in the last 15 minutes. However, the performances are such a standout that you really can’t ignore the film. I’m almost certain that come awards time, The Master will be in the mix.

6 responses to “Quick Review: The Master (dir. by Paul T. Anderson)

  1. “Reviewing a film like this requires a bit more depth and understanding of cinema on a whole than what I currently have.”

    Don’t sell yourself short.

    Above all else, when it comes to reviewing a film, an understanding of life itself (if life can ever be understood) and a bit of imagination is more important than a thorough “understanding of cinema”. The same goes for making films: you can have all the technical expertise and fancy equipment that you want, as I’m certain that many filmmakers do, but why then are so many film rather ordinary? The arts world (not just talking about films here) is full of bland self-indulgent bores who have trouble making anything relatable to their audience.

    However, I must say that 70mm print far surpasses digital presentation overall. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some rather visually impressive films in the 70mm format, such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” (plus its sequel, “2010: The Year We Make Contact”), “Baraka”, “The Right Stuff”, “Ben-Hur”, and let me tell you, nothing tops 70mm, not even the 4K Barco Digital Format (twice the industry resolution standard). In fact, I still prefer 35mm and even 16mm over any digital presentation.

    I’m already sold on “The Master” by sheer virtue of that fact that it’s a 70mm film produced in the 21st century (plus it has an intriguing premise and Mr. P.S. Hoffman, great value everytime I’ve seen him). Precious few cinemas anywhere in the world show 70mm prints on a regular basis, if at all. The Astor is showing a one week special series of screenings of “The Master” this December. A 70mm print on the super huge Astor screen with its old-school art-deco surroundings. A lot of folks in my hometown have absolutely no idea about this sort of thing and shall most likely catch “The Master” on a much smaller screen, most likely in (standard) digital presentation.

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    • I’ve just returned from a screening of “The Master” at the Astor Theatre, the only cinema in Australia that shall screen it in 70mm print format. PTA was there for an extensive Q&A session.

      “The Master” was rather different from what I thought it would be. I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by the film, but the performances are indeed very good to say the least. A lot of people cheered the bit where Freddy tosses the tomato (or whatever it was) at the sceptic who was arguing with Lancaster, which I think was a bit unfair. The sceptic had every right to question Lancaster’s beliefs and methods.

      It’s certainly worth seeing “The Master” at least once. Much like another Philip Seymour Hoffman film, “Synecdoche, New York”, it’s not one that shall be easily forgotten, but like “Synecdoche”, it’s safe to say that “The Master” is not what one would call mainstream. But let me tell you, in this digital cinema age, a 70mm film is like manna from heaven.

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