The Master Not Entirely Masterful (Spoilers)

I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master over the weekend. As a showcase for acting, I can’t think of a recent film that is more mesmerizing. Both Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are simply astoundingly good. The cinematography and overall mood of the film are compelling as well. That said, I found the film unsatisfying. 

I want to avoid as many spoilers as I can so I won’t get bogged down in the details. But the basic problem, as with many of Anderson’s films, is that The Master begins magnificently, drawing you in, even seducing you into his vision and then…it doesn’t really go anywhere all that interesting. It’s like the film begins as something that promises to be something fascinating to watch, like an unfolding story, but grinds down into something you merely look at, like an intriguing painting.

In one scene, the son of the cult leader Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix are talking and the son says (I’m quoting from memory) “You know [my father] makes all that stuff up as he goes.” By the end of the film, you get the sense that that’s the joke Anderson is pulling on the audience, because “The Master” is so bereft of satisfying plot development that you get the sense Anderson made it all up on the fly as well.

Indeed, some of the profiles of Anderson give the impression that that’s exactly what happened. From the Washington Post:

 “After collecting all this footage, when we got into the editing room it became clear that the marching orders, the party line to attack, was the love story,” he says, explaining that the film seemed destined to revolve around “two guys just desperate for each other, but doomed. Sadly doomed.”

To hear Anderson tell it, much of “The Master” was filmed on instinct: One sequence, in which Freddie runs back and forth between two walls in a grueling mental-conditioning exercise, came about after Anderson wrote a few lines describing the scene “not knowing we’d be doing it three days later.” The film reflects the same searching, indeterminate quality of its subjects, a not-quite-fish-or-fowl enterprise in which just about every cinematic rule has been thrown out.

Roughly half-way through the movie, it dawned on me that this what the whole thing was going to be: A bunch of scenes that didn’t develop a story so much as illuminate a creepy relationship. At first there seemed to be all of these great foreshadowing clues and hints that turned out to be nothing of the sort. They didn’t point to later revelations, they were just things that happened or were said. 

This is not necessarily a damning indictment, many movies aren’t about traditional story telling (though I have a bias in favor of story-telling). But I think it’s pretty clear from both the press and from the movie itself that Anderson didn’t stumble on this approach until way too late. And, again, that’s the problem with a lot of his movies (particularly There Will Be Blood), they begin as if he knows exactly where he’s going and end as if he’s saying “this is as good a place as any to stop.” 

I don’t want to sound too harsh here, because I’m really conflicted about it. I’m glad I saw it. Indeed, several (busy) days after watching it, it’s still in my head. The film takes you out of your comfort zone and drinks your milkshake as it were (to borrow a phrase from There Will Be Blood). That’s rare in movies these days and a sign that Anderson succeeded at least somewhat on his own terms. 

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