MOVIE: The Master (2012)

Look, I’ve been trying to write a review of this movie for almost a month now, and I just can’t do it.   I sit down, think about what to say, and all I can come up with is, “Good goddamn.”

So, good goddamn, is all.  I thought it was brilliant (and, boy, is it ever a Paul Thomas Anderson film — he has a very distinctive style).  But it also hit kind of close to home for me in several spots, and that made it incredibly hard to watch and even harder to write about.   Go see it yourself and see what you think.  I’ll be over here trying to think about something else for a while.

[Prequeue at Netflix]

Genre: Drama
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek.

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9 Responses to “MOVIE: The Master (2012)”

  1. briantoohey Says:

    It certainly had good things about it, but I was disappointed and I’d prefer it if PTA would be a little more of a storyteller and not so hands-off with his own material. I came out of the theatre thinking “what’s your point, PTA, and do you even know if you have one?” I thought the performances were great, although with Joaquin I think it’s less a performance and more PTA allowing him to be in the space that he’s in– a mental collapse probably rooted in the death of his brother and fed by his growing inability to trust the media, or anyone, and a continuing distrust of what people want from him– and to utilize that persona and struggle within his film and allow it to help inform the context and serve his narrative. With most directors, I’d simply write the whole thing off; but Anderson is smart and talented and capable enough, and has earned a certain amount of good will over the last fifteen years, that like a stern but fair judge, I’m “willing to allow it.” And by “it,” I mean this desire to not take an overt stand or beat his audience over the head with the point of it all, but to instead allow his themes to exist somewhat nebulously for the audience to ruminate over them and discuss them. Y’know– like art. I guess Anderson has proved to me that he’s one of the few filmmakers working today capable of producing art, and not simply entertainment.

    But… I must confess that when it comes to film, I still prefer narrative. And I prefer art that serves the telling of a story, and not simply to exist somewhat nebulously. I’d rather see a good story artfully told, than art existing to vaguely question meaning and open up thought and discourse. I feel that Anderson’s latest is skirting the boundaries of that, and it’s one of my least favorite of his. It’s definitely of a piece with There Will Be Blood, but I feel The Master is even less direct. They certainly both border on brilliant, but The Master has lost some of the cohesiveness of Blood, and I actually prefer his early, more narrative-centered films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

    In terms of the offerings of the fall season, I preferred Argo. Perhaps less soul-searching, meandering, and thought-provoking, but much more certain about what it was trying to say, while artfully telling a hell of a story both entertaining and historically important, and doing so via incredibly tight story construction, attention to historical detail, and expert directing technique. It’s rare to either craft a superb Hollywood entertainment or to make a historical film that doesn’t get lost in itself, and Affleck has managed to do both in one film. He may not an actor I enjoy very much, but he’s quickly become one of my favorite directors and has managed to give his career a new life and his Hollywood celebrity a genuine purpose.

    • megwood Says:

      Boy, I could not disagree more with this. For me, it was an absolutely SPOT-ON depiction of, among other things, what it’s like to suffer from PTSD and be desperate to get better — desperate enough to fall for the charms of a loony charismatic like Hoffman’s character. I thought the narrative was incredibly strong, and the visuals even more so. I didn’t feel banged over the head at all — instead, I found it quite subtle, and I’ve been thinking about the various themes at play for weeks now without ceasing. It really impacted me very strongly.

      I know everybody thinks Joaquin is just totally crackers right now and his performance wasn’t so much a performance as just rolling with his own crazy, but I don’t believe that either, to be honest. I thought he was utterly brilliant. I believed that character through and through. And the ending, with its total lack of resolution, was absolute perfection. Thank god for a director who doesn’t just wrap it all up neatly and pretend that’s actually how life works.

      Stunning film. Absolutely stunning.

      I do really want to see Argo, but it’s not a film I think can be compared in any way to this one. Two completely different genres and purposes. I’m glad to hear it’s awesome, though! Looking forward to it!

      • briantoohey Says:

        No, I didn’t feel banged over the head at all… what I was saying that I would have been liked to have been banged a little more. And yeah, totally different types of movies, but I guess I was saying I feel that The Master is over-rated and didn’t live up to the hype (for me), nor was it a film that I really enjoyed… respected yes; enjoyed, no. In terms of Oscar bait, I thought Argo was much more successful across all levels. Obviously we disagree on The Master, but just wanted to clear up the fact about banging over the head. I was saying that I would have actually preferred if PTA had been less subtle and developed the narrative more, which to me was ultimately pretty weak and flimsy.

        For instance, I don’t believe it was ultimately a film about someone with PTSD falling for a charismatic loony. To begin with, I guess I don’t agree that Hoffman was intended to come off as a loony. I think there was a lot that Anderson admires about the character. I think it was more an unconventional love story between the two lead male characters, and that as much as it was about Phoenix’s character, it was equally about Hoffman and what he was losing of his own instinctual side by becoming increasingly controlling, closed-minded, and intolerant towards views other than his own. But even though his beliefs were unconventional, I don’t think Anderson intended to portray them, or Hoffman, as a cut-and-dried loony– I don’t think anything about Anderson or the thematic content of his films is ever so black and white, and I think he was trying equally to portray the value he saw behind Hoffman’s belief system as to critique it. I guess you could call Hoffman’s and Phoenix’s characters equally loony, with equal yet opposite strengths. The film functioned more as a dual, comparative character study to me. And there certainly seemed to be an element of Hoffman’s superego character regretting having to cast off Phoenix’s id character and compartmentalize himself; that’s why at the end he told him if they ever met again they’d be mortal enemies. He was casting off that part of himself, a part of himself he would have been better off keeping, and in doing so, had to demonize it. As if Henry Higgins had cast off Eliza Doolittle because he couldn’t tame or conventionalize her, yet drew a battle line and declared her his enemy precisely because what she represented, and its power and value, scared him with its inherent power over him.

        So obviously we’ve come away with very different interpretations of the film, and while, as I said before, PTA is one of the few people talented enough that I’ll allow that for, I would have preferred him being a little more overt about his authorial intent was than leaving it quite so up to reflection and audience interpretation as he does. He’s an incredibly strong storyteller when he commits to telling a definitive narrative, and I miss that guy.

      • briantoohey Says:

        Argh, is there no edit button? I mean to write “… I would have preferred him being a little more overt about his authorial intent than leaving quite so up to reflection…”

        That “was” got left in there as I was changing around my sentence construction trying to figure out how to communicate what I was trying to say.

      • briantoohey Says:

        “… leaving IT quite so up to reflection…”

        Arrgh. 🙂

      • megwood Says:

        I definitely felt the respect you mention from PTA toward Hoffman’s character, but I also think he was CLEARLY mentally unbalanced. Both main characters were, like you said, and it’s true they were sort of polar opposites in their manifestations of that madness, but in many ways, their madness is also identical (rooted in fear — of isolation, abandonment, etc.).

        But I do really think it’s a film about a man with PTSD desperately pinning his hopes on a charismatic crazy guy. That was the narrative for me, anyway (I’m not sure what you mean by “narrative,” either, because I felt the film had a very clear storyline — the roots of his PTSD shown to us in the beginning, then the development of it as he gets home from war and finds himself unable to function, his desperate search for value/meaning, his increasing doubt, his ultimate failure to make a lasting change, etc. All that stuff, including his relationship with The Master, is classic PTSD. The movie ended with what felt like the most natural ending possible — the end of the first cycle of trying to get better. So, from there, who knows — maybe he ends up killing himself with booze. Maybe he tries again. Maybe he succeeds. I like that we don’t know.

        There were a lot of scenes in the film that were extremely powerful for me (like the scene where Freddy is pacing back and forth in the living room touching the wall and the window over and over all day long — man, I know what that feels like (metaphorically speaking)). I think our different reactions here probably have a lot to do with our different personal experiences related to the subject matter. As is true with reactions to any movie or book or whatever.

        I thought it was brilliant. Argo looks smart and entertaining, but it doesn’t look like the kind of film I’ll be thinking about the meaning of for weeks after I see it. You know? Seeing a complex film like The Master is a rare treat. I thought it was beautifully made on many levels.

        Thanks for the conversation, dood!!

  2. Liz Says:

    Boy, you guys gave me a good read this morning. That says a lot about this blog: there’s always room for differing views, and one can learn so much more from this kind of “back and forth” approach. I saw something ABOUT this movie on TV, but I haven’t actually seen the movie yet. When I do, I bet I’ll think you’re both right!

  3. Riley Morton Says:

    While I’m much closer to Brian’s POV in this conversation, I think you have a lot of great points, Meg, and insight into the film that i didn’t consider upon seeing it. so thanks for that.

    As a piece of art, it might be brilliant (who am i to say?) – a lot of people that i respect think it is.
    But as a business it will be lucky to break even, despite having glowing reviews and likely Oscar cache. I think that a relatively small percentage of people can appreciate storytelling that is so diffuse and abstract… but hey film is a great way to push boundaries, and i think we can agree that PTA did just that.
    All i’m saying is i’m glad i wasn’t the one who put the money into producing it.

  4. RogerBW Says:

    Riley’s idea links to something I’ve been trying to get at for a while – basically, with the current cost of studio filmmaking, the only way to make money is to go for wide appeal, which means nothing “challenging”.

    Sure, you’ll occasionally get something like this, but its financial results are only likely to put off other potential backers. Where I look for interesting and odd film is in the no-budget end, where a lone genius can still produce something really amazing (though, obviously, most of the time that doesn’t happen).

    The studio system, and especially theatrical distribution, are money pits and dead ends. That’s not where I put my film-viewing money any more.

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