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Reviews
STAR RATINGS EXPLAINED
Unmissable 5 Stars
Excellent 4 Stars
Good 3 Stars
Poor 2 Stars
Tragic 1 Star

FILM DETAILS
Certificate
15
Cast
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Joaquin Phoenix
Amy Adams.
Directors
Paul Thomas Anderson.
Screenwriters
Paul Thomas Anderson.
Running Time
136 minutes

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The Master
The Sailor! In Adventures With Scientologists!


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Plot
After World War II, Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is discharged from the navy and finds it hard to adjust to civilian life, becoming a rootless, drunk drifter. A chance meeting with Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), leader of a new cult called The Cause, offers him an opportunity to change.


Review
The Master
For a film called The Master, it takes an awful long time for ‘The Master’ to appear. Indeed, it takes nearly half an hour before we meet Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and it is even longer before we find out his name, which is revealed, almost quite shockingly, during a rare interaction with the authorities of the outside world. The plot is negligible, and for a film that has been so much mooted as being ‘about’ Scientology, it says very little about this particular sect’s methods and motivations except that, though they may be bogus and a tad illegal, for some people The Cause might actually work.

This is because Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth film is a novelistic work of fiction, something critics seem to be having a hard time grasping in these days of comic book adaptations and remakes. It has real-life correlations, definitely, but this is no roman à clef, and there is nothing more to this film than one man’s imagination. It draws from many areas, from Melvin And Howard by Jonathan Demme (still by far the biggest directorial influence on PTA’s work), from the palette of old Hollywood (Elia Kazan’s love story Splendor In The Grass springs to mind), and from the lives of Depression-era author John Steinbeck and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But the result is an impressionistic patchwork that ebbs and flows, reaching a breaking point rather than a climax in the usual sense.

And like any good book, if you like it, it is a place to revisit. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no ‘need’ to see it twice. There are no hidden meanings here, nothing to “get”, other than perhaps that there is no real master at all, just two sides of the same coin, each looking to the other for the answers. To Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), Lancaster Dodd is literally The Man, with his smart suits and sophistry. But to Lancaster Dodd, Freddie Quell is a thing of savage purity, a man with no aim or conscience and nowhere to be except now. This is what drives the movie, the tension between yin and yang, between ego and super-ego, a symbiosis that has been rather simplistically compared to the father-son relationships that run through all PTA’s movies, beginning with his debut, Hard Eight, in 1996.

That reading is certainly there, and there are definitely echoes of Boogie Nights and Magnolia with, respectively, their surrogate and broken families, but this time there is a stand-off, since both men are, in a curious way, quite equal. Hoffman shows a whole new side to his talents here, being funny, charming and surprisingly light on his feet as Dodd. Phoenix is a little less of a revelation, since Freddie is not a million miles from his 2005 portrayal of Johnny Cash, but that’s not to say his performance is in any way predictable. In fact, it is quite the opposite: tender when it should seem shocking and vice versa, creating a genuinely unreadable and, for that reason, most unlikely hero.

Because, at its core, The Master is really about Freddie and the strange, secret romance that holds the key to his violence and his acting out, something he cannot fathom, much less articulate. This is the true motor of the story and what gives The Master its deceptively subtle power: if there is a third wheel here, it is not Dodd’s tough, business-like wife Peggy (Amy Adams) but the girl at the back of Freddie’s mind, the unfinished business he left behind, not simply because she was too young for him but because her affections overwhelmed and overloaded a very rusty, inexperienced heart.

After the rigours of There Will Be Blood, The Master seems positively light at times, and the ending will disappoint those hoping for a similar last-reel crescendo. But like that stark, intimate epic, it is another film for and of its time, touching on themes of recession, demobilisation and survival in its story of two men trying to make sense of post-war life, one creating a new kind of order, the other simply surfing. America’s withdrawal from Iraq gives it an unintended topicality, since The Master isn’t an allegory, just a very poetic, lyrically shot and seductively scored film about how that country dusted itself down from World War II. In Dodd and Freddie we have two archetypes of the national spirit back then: one is ambitious and entrepreneurial, the other just wants to work and get laid.


Verdict
An often brilliant ’50s-throwback character drama that never feels nostalgic, with terrific central performances and a luminous, unforgettable visual beauty.


Reviewed by Damon Wise

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Your Reviews

Average user rating for The Master
Empire Star Rating

RE: The Master

Five years have passed since Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful fifth outing There Will Be Blood, which has been recognised as one of the top films of the last decade from critics’ list. While there are those who questioned the ambiguity of the film whilst highly praising Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance, PTA’s latest is a more challenging drama that has gained much controversy over its analogies with Scientology, which can be commonly thought of as a bizarre religion. Following W... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by R W at 20:27, 16 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Most Satisfying Film I've Seen All Year

Yeah it's almost up there with TWBB for me. The ending did bug me a little tbh but I saw it months ago so it might be grand on second viewing. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by talpacino at 15:50, 14 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Most Satisfying Film I've Seen All Year

I actually meant to say three rather than two (PIG FUCK/the jail scene/discussing the new book with Laura Dern in Phoenix), though when I think about it more the second of those three seems quite distinct in itself. I'd be inclined to see it as a mirror of the earlier processing scene where Lancaster exposes something of the 'real' Freddie on his (Lancaster's) terms, while the jail sequence is Freddie exposing something of the 'real' Lancaster through violence/rage/etc (I'm thinking specificall... More

Posted by Olaf at 22:22, 12 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Most Satisfying Film I've Seen All Year

PIGFUCK. ... More

Posted by homersimpson_esq at 21:56, 12 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Most Satisfying Film I've Seen All Year

I was really surprised by PSH in this actually - going by the general idea of the plot that I had, I was expecting him to be a kind of Plainview-style apocalyptic force of nature style deal (at least that's how I tend to picture powerful cult leaders anyway). But he's quite charming - in a Wellesian sort of way, definitely - that darker undercurrent is always kind of there but it plays off the likeable aspects of his character in a lot of interesting ways. (of course, those sort of charismatic ... More

Posted by Olaf at 20:39, 12 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Most Satisfying Film I've Seen All Year

An apt analogy, as PSH was channelling Welles/Kane, I felt. ... More

Posted by homersimpson_esq at 19:58, 12 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Most Satisfying Film I've Seen All Year

L: homersimpson_esq There is a huge amount to recommend in this film. I need to fully mull over my thoughts on it, but I will say this: it won't be the classic people are saying. It is exception, though. Which seems contradictory, but there you go. aving watched both within about two days of each other, I still honestly believe that this is a better film than There Will Be Blood. In a kind of perverse way, I think its major strengths are derived from the same place as the most ... More

Posted by Olaf at 19:53, 12 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Most Satisfying Film I've Seen All Year

There is a huge amount to recommend in this film. I need to fully mull over my thoughts on it, but I will say this: it won't be the classic people are saying. It is exception, though. Which seems contradictory, but there you go. Re Boommikegate, I think it might have been a chandelier? I noticed something dangling from the ceiling in that scene, but my first thought was "odd light fitting" rather than "filmmaker error". ... More

Posted by homersimpson_esq at 18:56, 12 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Most Satisfying Film I've Seen All Year

Went to see the 70mm print today after work. What a great piece of filmmaking. I was truly engrossed from start to finish and the runtime flew by, barely seemed like 90 minutes to me. The film's success rests obviously the shoulders of two towering performances from Phoenix and Hoffman and whilst Phoenix seems to be getting most of the praise I found myself thinking that Hoffman's performance was even better. Its not a film for everyone, as I noticed upon exiting the screening ... More

Posted by UTB at 21:05, 06 November 2012 | Report This Post


Most Satisfying Film I've Seen All Year

This is the only film all year that's managed to get an emotional response out of me and I'm not sure why some think it pretentious. For me, The Dark Knight Rises was pretentious because it pretended to be grand and epic and 'important' but had very little substance beneath it. The Master is the opposite. It's subtley, beautifully played out and has a lot under the hood. I honestly came out of it thinking how the themes of the film are present in my life. I didn't necessarily like the conclusion... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by Nicky C at 12:13, 05 November 2012 | Report This Post


Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

I absolutely loved this film. I know many will disagree, but for me, it was the most unique film of the year. Although, I can understand why so many people dissent or dismiss it. It's probably Anderson's most enigmatic and ambiguous movie, and while the style is characteristic of him, the film feels different from the rest of his movies. Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of a lifetime, Oscar worthy, for sure; Hoffman is also astonishing and very charismatic; Adams is excellent, too; and, ove... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by nc_jj at 04:17, 05 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Emperor's New Clothes

L: adambatman82 I like how that's the first (and only) thing you have to say about the film! ot a dis on the film. My main impressions didn't differ vastly from the published review and I didn't want to be redundant. Its such a rare thing too see a boom in shot these days that It seemed worth a mention. Its possible Odeon could have cropped the boom shot out by adjusting the projection on later screenings. I think its just one of those things that occasionally happe... More

Posted by Fit Kisto at 15:11, 04 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Master

To add: Who gives a toss about the Oscars! ... More

Posted by jrewing1000 at 03:09, 04 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Master

I really liked this. Saw it tonight at the 70mm screening at the Odeon, although I honestly didn't see any noticable improvement in screening quality. Probably Anderson's least accessible film, The Master is more Mallick than Altman. It flirts with plot, rather than serving one. There are some truly wonderful moments, and you never doubt that you are in the hands of a gifted filmmaker. The lack of distinct plot will probably disappoint a lot of people. Indeed, I was disappointed there... More

Posted by jrewing1000 at 03:08, 04 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Master

L: Indio I saw it in 70mm today and don't recall seeing any boom appearing on screen. I didn't love the film, and wouldn't call it 'the American film of the year' as I've seen it described in the press, and it might be my least favourite out of all Paul Thomas Anderson's films, it did seem a bit of an effort at times but I liked it a lot (and certainly didn't find it 'pretentious'). Surely Joaquin Phoenix must be a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar next year, and who knows, maybe Phi... More

Posted by adambatman82 at 00:15, 04 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: The Master

I saw it in 70mm today and don't recall seeing any boom appearing on screen. I didn't love the film, and wouldn't call it 'the American film of the year' as I've seen it described in the press, and it might be my least favourite out of all Paul Thomas Anderson's films, it did seem a bit of an effort at times but I liked it a lot (and certainly didn't find it 'pretentious'). Surely Joaquin Phoenix must be a shoo-in for the Best Actor Oscar next year, and who knows, maybe Philip Seymour Hoffma... More

Posted by Indio at 23:01, 03 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Emperor's New Clothes

L: Fit Kisto I hate to say this, but having seen the 70mm screening in London, there is quite a noticeable boom-in-shot moment about two thirds of the way through the film. The scene where Freddie is pacing back and forth, touching the wall and window and Lancaster calls him to stop. I think this might be a quirk of the 70mm projection rather than any creative oversight. Its an incredibly involving film so its a shame to be pulled out of the scene like that. like how that's the... More

Posted by adambatman82 at 20:34, 03 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Emperor's New Clothes

I hate to say this, but having seen the 70mm screening in London, there is quite a noticeable boom-in-shot moment about two thirds of the way through the film. The scene where Freddie is pacing back and forth, touching the wall and window and Lancaster calls him to stop. I think this might be a quirk of the 70mm projection rather than any creative oversight. Its an incredibly involving film so its a shame to be pulled out of the scene like that. ... More

Posted by Fit Kisto at 08:18, 03 November 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Emperor's New Clothes

Your review came across as if you'd based your opinions on the thoughts of your friends rather than your own. It did seem pretentious but I apologise if I came across harsh ... More

Posted by UTB at 16:19, 30 October 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Emperor's New Clothes

I'm sorry if you feel my comments were pretentious. I was simply drawing attention to the possibility that I have no idea what I'm talking about (quite likely) but given the company I was in, it seemed my opinion might not be based purely on my fairly light film appreciation. Thought it was worth mentioning. ... More

Posted by vladimirimp at 15:52, 30 October 2012 | Report This Post


RE: Emperor's New Clothes

L: vladimirimp pretentious L: vladimirimp a bunch of movie buffs working in the film industry L: vladimirimp Oscar winners actually L: vladimirimp pretentious ... More

Posted by UTB at 14:50, 30 October 2012 | Report This Post


Emperor's New Clothes

5 stars? You've got to be kidding. This was the most pretentious film I have seen in a very long time. I happened to see it in a theatre in the US some weeks ago, with a bunch of movie buffs working in the film industry - Oscar winners actually. So when it thankfully ended I wondered if perhaps I'd missed something. Maybe it was too high brow for me? Maybe you need to be REALLY into films to enjoy it. No. They all thought it was utter twaddle. Great visuals, yes. Amazing acting, absolutely. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by vladimirimp at 13:35, 30 October 2012 | Report This Post


This is probably the best review of the oft-misread film so far. I agree with every point it makes. Kudos to you, Mr. Wise. That being said, this is also the best film of the year so far. Top notch technical work, acting, writing. Still doesn't top Magnolia or There Will Be Blood in PT Anderson's canon, however, it does seem like the next logical step in his evolution as a great director. The many Pynchonian qualities of the film make me all the more excited for Inherent Vice. Let's hope it c... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by vwcerreta at 01:56, 30 October 2012 | Report This Post


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