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The Master - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
The Master
Directing: A-
Acting: A
Writing: B
Cinematography: A
Editing: A-

The Master leaves me a little mystified. It ended with me thinking something along the lines of, What was that about? I've been thinking about it. As of now I'm still not quite sure I can tell you. But I'll try.

There's a curious thing about this movie, which comes with high expectations by virtue of it being written by Paul Thomas Anderson, the genius behind There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia and Boogie Nights -- all truly exceptional movies. Anderson's excellence is brought forth in every way in The Master, except one: the story itself. It's a little obtuse, even for P.T. Anderson. There's some brilliance there, or at least the potential for it, but it remains elusive to the end. Or maybe I'm just dumb.

But everything else makes up for a lot. I was pretty sure I'd give this movie a B+. The story felt pretty B+ to me. But I give the five elements I pay most attention to equal weight, and everything else about it is excellent: the direction; the editing; the characteristically exceptional actor performances; and most notably, the trademark gorgeous cinematography. I had wondered why this, of all movies, was being shown at Cinerama. Turns out this is the first movie to be shot on 65mm film since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in 1996. This is something Cinerama is equipped for, and one need only to see the imagery in this film to understand why the choice was justified.

But what of what actually happens? Well, here's a bit of cinematic baggage: the main character, Freddie Quell, is played by Juaquin Phoenix, in his first starring role in four years. The last time anyone paid attention to him, he was sporting a beard and making a valiant effort at being a bad rapper. Honestly, this guy is so talented it's easy to forget that stuff. Freddie is a World War II veteran with a serious alcohol problem, which maybe masks a multitude of other problems that aren't fleshed out. He gets very creative with his concoctions, using ingredients from missile fuel to paint thinner. There's something very evocative about his posture, always scrunched, always hunched. He looks thin and old -- more than he should on both counts.

We follow him on a downward spiral since the end of the war, until someone drinks too much of what he made and dies. Completely by chance, he happens upon a boat that happens to be carrying dozens of adherents to "The Cause" -- including its leader and creator, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The rest of the movie follows the ups and downs of the relationship between these two men, as Dodd increases in power (and temperamental outbursts) and Quell increases in devotion to him.

Much has been made of whether or not this movie is inspired by the beginnings of Scientology. I don't know enough about Scientology to speak to that, for which I am grateful. I'm not sure it's all that relevant. Dodd is clearly the leader of a cult in the making, however, and it is to Anderson's credit that the character is presented in an unpredictable and unusual way. He is given dimension, in a sort of subversive way. Hoffman, one of the greatest actors working today, doesn't have to do much to hint at the dangers of a guy like this. There's a great scene with Laura Dern, as one of his high-profile followers, asking him about his change of a single word in his teachings. It's just one word and yet the revelation speaks volumes.

I suspect the effect of The Master improves with multiple viewings. I've only seen it once, and I can only share the relative vagueness of my impressions. There's something deeper going on than surface appearances with every character, particularly Dodd's wife Peggy (the always reliable Amy Adams). There's a nearly impenetrable denseness in whatever P.T. Anderson has to say. I still can't quite articulate what that is. I can only say that he says it beautifully, and sometimes that's all you need.

Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman try to make sense of 'The Cause' in THE MASTER.

Overall: A-
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