The Master (US, 2012)

I liked this bit

I liked this bit

What is the point of The Master? Its narrative is suitably elliptical for a ‘arty’ house film; it lacks the clear drive that’s bespoke Hollywood. It features lauded performances of the sort that Oscar voters like. It’s beautifully  shot and superbly set designed with some striking  compositions – am thinking particularly of a shot early in the film Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) lying in the ship’s crow’s nest (above).  The music, both ‘found’ and scored (by Jonny Greenwood) is terrific …  I hated it (apart from the music).

What’s the film’s point?  What was it about? It wasn’t about being a member of a cult, as its focus is on the relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s Master and Freddie, who never joins. It barely touches upon the psychology of the Master, he loses his temper a couple of times when challenged, he simply seems deranged. As is Freddie who is probably suffering from PTSD. OK it’s artyhouse, which means you don’t have to explain everything but when does that stray into laziness on the part of the filmmaker: PT Anderson? What about the social context? Why did post-war America encourage cults?

I thought Joaquin Phoenix entirely unconvincing and Philip Seymour Hoffmann appeared to be going through the motions. Most people don’t agree with me about this film.


5 Responses

  1. For me, The Master was the best film of last year. Firstly I’ll address the last statement. I don’t think you’re alone on this. In fact one of the big talking points of the film is just how divisive it is. The festival crowd loved it and was poising itself to be a big awards season contender, after all Harvey Weinstein had put his weight behind it, but as more critics saw it there were more than a handful of dissenting voices and as the box office figures rolled in, it was clear that many people weren’t connecting or simply weren’t interested in The Master. So in not liking the film, you’re not alone. Type in the ‘The Master sucks’ into Google and you’ll get more than a fair share of really intelligent people really hating on it.

    However, you are alone in your view on the performances which as far as I can tell have been widely applauded even among critics who don’t like the film as a whole. Amy Adams (who you don’t mention) is utterly mesmerising and despite having so little screen time she is the film’s dominant force. In regards to the two leads, Phoenix and Hoffman I think are absolutely stonking. Admittedly on first viewing, Phoenix didn’t grab me as I had expected (considering the plaudits) and I was more bowled over by the verbose and charming yet utterly deadly and consuming Hoffman, however on second viewing he is doing so much that I think it is troubling to call his performance unconvincing. His character is entirely over the top and one of total extremes but there are moments of a much more subtle performance in there. The scene he shares with Hoffman where Freddie is processed by Lancaster is totally compelling. The recollection of Freddie’s dark, incestuous past is a moment of tenderness and heartbreak which then awakens you to realise you are seeing a fully rounded and incredibly well crafted performance. Not to mention a brilliant piece of writing from Anderson.

    Hoffman is extraordinary and is given somewhat the showman role which allows him to be a larger than life figure but there are layers underneath that of true darkness and horror that aren’t explored explicitly but are there running through Hoffman’s performance. I think considering how subtle the performances are it is a bit misrepresentative to say it is the kind of performance the Oscars like. I would aim that accusation square on at the performances in Silver Linings Playbook which (aside from Jennifer Lawrence) are insincere and attention seeking for all the wrong reasons.

    In regards to what the film is actually about, for me it is about what the filmmakers were distancing themselves from all along: Scientology (or cults in general) and its corrupting power on vulnerable people. Freddie becomes involved with the Cause by being taken under the wing of Lancaster and in that relationship we see Freddie become more and more seduced by his strange and bizarre teachings but also that he will bend to his will. Several times throughout the film he enacts spontaneous outbursts of violence on people who seem to question the teachings of Lancaster and anyone who questions him directly “The only way to defend ourselves is attack”. There is a nice unspoken tension as to whether Lancaster actually instills this sense of violence in Freddie. There is a wonderful parallel when one of the members (Laura Dern) comes to question Lancaster about the Split Saber and he shouts her down rather out of turn, this is of course juxtaposed against Freddie beating a man who has said that the Split Saber is a load of nonsense.

    Later there is a moment when Freddie gets arrested and goes utterly insane, smashing up his cell and presumably injuring himself and all because he has this pent up aggression in protecting his Master but has in the scene prior has had the seeds of doubt planted in him over the legitimacy of Lancaster’s teachings. The transgression he exhibits in a build up of doubts that other people have planted throughout the film and it leads to him being in prison. And in that regard The Cause essentially fails Freddie and shows that it isn’t a place of comfort but rather a place of antagonism, it offers him a place in the world and as part of a family after having spent years at war and at sea but it hasn’t worked his experience with the Cause takes him right back to the beginning on the beach where he was a simply a lousy, sexist drunk. There’s plenty more to be read within that cyclical structure of ending back on the beach but that’s my take on it for now.

    I agree the music is extraordinary and wonderful as it was in There Will Be Blood, the attention to period detail is brilliant and the photography is just beautiful. But there are other terrifically memorable moments abounding in the film: “I’ll always go a roving”, the motorbike scene, the slow boat to China and the second processing scene(s) all feel like classic cinematic moments as you watch them but always are of a piece. A sign of both terrific and assured direction, I think this is Anderson’s most mature film to date.

    A final note, you’re interested in the portrayal of sexual activity on film so consider this: All the sexual acts that are explicitly shown in the film are all instigated by women/controlled by women. Peggy giving Lancaster a hand job (her control over him, literally has his dick in her hand, she is in charge), the scene in the Philadelphia house where Lancaster’s daughter places her hand in Freddie’s crotch and the scene at the end where the woman is on top of Freddie. Also interesting is that despite him being somewhat of a sex addict, Freddie seems oddly asexual (that final sex scene is debatable as to whether it happens) and also the fact that the most loving relationship in the film is that between Freddie and Lancaster. Food for thought.

  2. Thanks for such a detailed reply. I haven’t got a lot to add to my original post; I guess I just didn’t like the film. I also had trouble with also widely-feted ‘Amour’. I wasn’t the only one who found Phoenix unconvincing and it’s possible that I’m just tiring of Hoffman’s acting style. I used to think he was brilliant but now find him mannered. Thus it’s not surprising that I would find ‘The Master’ unconvincing with him at the middle of it. I’ve just watched ‘Mission: Impossible 3’ (US, 2006) – the Master was in that too.

    I agree the motorcycle scene looked great. Apparently Anderson included it because he always wanted to do such a scene having seen ‘Melvin and Howard’ (US, 1980). If that was the case then maybe it too is an example of ‘arthouse’ indulgence.

    • I think it’s interesting how Anderson has matured from flashy, OTT, look at me fair (of which I am a great fan, Magnolia especially) into arthouse whether he belongs there and will stay there is debatable.

      Considering your incompatability with Haneke I’m not surprised you didn’t like Amour. I didn’t like it either, not sure I was meant to, but I greatly admired the artistry of it and I’m stunned at the Oscar success it has received.

      • You’re right about ‘Amour’ not wanting to be liked. I certainly admired it but regretted spending two and a half hours of my life contemplating death.

  3. […] I’m not sure why the music was so high in the mix. I loved Jonny Greenwood’s score for The Master and his old fashioned scoring for Phantom Thread is in keeping with Anderson’s aesthetic […]

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