The Master: directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson
Another review, another case of me breaking the fourth-wall.
I must confess I somewhat resent the state of criticism where there seems like an essential unassailable foreword must precede the discussion of certain films. But, for whatever reason some films come with this overwhelming sheen of consequence that opining on them seems to be entering into a potentially dangerous dialogue (prime 2012 examples, for better or for worse, Amour, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Zero Dark Thirty). I mention this because at some point it seems as if when you sit down to wade through your thoughts the threat of responding to the dialogue and not the film seems….likely. In theory, I suspect this issue becomes much more frustrating when you’re unable to wholeheartedly succumb to the film in question (zing, has that become my recitative?). But….here we go.
Freddie Quell is a sailor who has just completed a stint in the U.S. Navy circa World War II. He is a raging man suffering from seeming traumatic stress, sexual addiction, alcoholism – a raging angry young man, but not so young. His one definitive talent is the ability to extract “alcohol” from the most dubious of substance – fuel, paint thinners, the ilk. Sailing sailor Freddie on the run from some maybe minor, maybe not trouble becomes a stowaway on a ship and happens upon the energetic, confident Lancaster Dodd who is the leader of a movement – “The Cause”. Freddie’s visceral ways intrigue Dodd, and Freddie in turn – perhaps moved, confused by his kindness – is similarly intrigued. What follows is the film’s examination study presentation of how this meeting changes Freddie…and, then, how it does not.
Perhaps I err on that final line because to push the audience away suggests (in addition to something more insidious than The Master is) a decisive propellant within the film and The Master is a film which – weirdly – for all the bellowing within it the film itself never seems to do more with the issues at its centre than present them. And in that static way it becomes elusive to the audience…well, to me. I kept waiting for something to happen to justify the existence of the film, of the time spent with these people. I wanted Paul to say to me what he was planning to do with the subjects he had gathered but no spark came. He seems to have assembled some fine parts, and some perfect parts even, but he does not seem able to commit them an…errr…definitive Cause. It’s not so much that the film fails to give me answers it’s that Anderson does not even seem committed to asking the questions. The film’s insistence on not exploring the crevices of its subjects is a pattern which does not work for me.
...more below on the great performance at its centre...but my inability to endorse the whole....
Phoeonix's performance at the centre is marvellous and seems to prevents me with more to applaud wholeheartedly than the film itself. Hoffman has the less instinctive character but is great to watch. But when Greenwood's subversive score unsettles more than the drama of the film I feel as if something has gone amiss. More than great separate pieces, the whole of a film should have something to say but so often my take-away from The Master is that it is as purposeless as its main character.
Allow me a paradox. There is a sometimes fallacious inclination to assume that everything which does not make complete sense is inscrutable in its complexity. The Master is so hell-bent on eschewing narrative “conventions”, like catharsis for example, but it’s so vexingly sleek in its creation that it slyly suggests something more. To the point that, when it ended I at first wondered if I was missing something; surely, there had to be something more to it all? On pondering, though, it became clear that this was just a case of a decisive disconnect between me and those for whom it worked. And, let me clear, I’m certain that there are those for whom the film empathically worked but in considering that first initial reaction of mine I wondered how often the lure of attaching lofty ideas to something inscrutable just to make it all “make sense” has betrayed us, betrayed me? The power of the seemingly obscure is that in its opaqueness and mystery it – sometimes erroneously – suggests something more profound at the centre. It’s dense, so it must be holding some significant kernel in its heart. No? WithThe Master that suggestion is merely a wisp for Anderson’s deliberately distancing (and fine) technique does not convince me of a centre worthy of true consideration.
I did ask. But I didn’t get any answer. There wasn’t anything there.*
(*Or, maybe there was – but I could not hear it.)
(**Boy, this review reads like something sour, right? It’s the mark of a film that’s at least conversation worthy when grading it becomes such an exercise in futility. I’m vacillating on the grade but feel generally fine with the one there. I wonder if a better grade is possible because like Life of Pi it’s beautifully rendered, although this is all the more frustrating because it has the promise of something truly profound at its centre but squanders the opportunity by examining none of it. I’d be more than willing to consider a better grade just for the technicalities and one marvellous, and one very excellent, performance at the centre which – again – calls into question which elements of a film can truly elevate it.
Alternatively, when the film so decisively prevents me from finding a way in to have a relationship with it – borne out of love, like, admiration even it speaks to a film I warrant as even less of that grade although the fact that it’s all so meticulously mounted make me immediately say, no. the grade works.
I suspect the obvious response is I need to see it again to get it, but I’ve never been one to suggest that a film deserves to be seen again which didn’t earn your true appreciation on its first outing even. Second viewings should be earned, I think, and not rewarded simply because of the promise of the obscure. Also, the story itself is straightforward; it’s only Anderson’s deliberately directorial idiosyncrasies which are distancing, more than not understandable.)