TIFF 2012: THE MASTER Review

     September 8, 2012


Tickets for Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master should be good for two screenings.  The movie is so damn dense that there’s almost too much to digest on an initial viewing.  Like his previous film, There Will Be Blood, The Master is hypnotic with its smooth, crisp cinematography and Jonny Greenwood‘s moaning, bluesy score.  The story proceeds at a slow, methodical pace where the energy comes from the astonishing performances of lead actors Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.  But the craft and talent of the project was never in doubt.  What makes The Master such a challenge is in trying to untangle the twisted themes and symbols presented by the central conflict between a mad dog and his owner.

Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is a disturbed sailor who wasn’t quite right in the head even before he headed off to World War II.  When he returns home, his violent temper and alcoholism stop him from keeping a job, and he ends up stowing away on a ship.  On board he finds the charismatic and enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).  Dodd is the founder of a new movement known as “The Cause”, which demands its adherents to look into their past lives, free themselves from doubt, and submit to rigorous deconstructions of their identity so they can be free from emotional pain.  Freddie is seduced by Dodd, and the two form the nominal bond of mentor and protégé, but what they truly have is a captivating clash of Apollonian and Dionysian personalities.


The Apollonian/Dionysian reading is the best I can do after one viewing.  The two sides fit together and yet they’re at war.  Dionysus was the Greek god of wine and winemaking, and alcohol is the initial reason why Dodd wants to recruit Freddie.  Apollo is concerned with the life of the mind, and that’s where Dodd’s twisted Cause lives.  Dodd provides some element of calm to Freddie’s tortured mind, and Freddie provides the occasional bacchanalia to Dodd’s pseudo-scientific, self-serious ramblings.  “He’s just making it up as he goes along,” Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) tells Freddie, and that’s true.  But that doesn’t mean the eponymous cult leader doesn’t believe what he’s preaching, and he certainly doesn’t mind the dominion he holds over his followers.  And if Dodd ever has a moment of self-doubt, it’s instantly stuffed out by his wife, Peggy (Adams).

The horrible co-dependent relationship between Freddie and Dodd is buried beneath the lush layers of Anderson’s brilliant direction.  The pacing is lugubrious, patient, and deliberate to the point of sometimes being excruciating.  It’s a slow burn that never ignites nor is it meant to.  Characters can scream at each other, and Freddie will periodically lose control and get violent, but Anderson doesn’t wish to engulf us in flames of passion or fury.  He wants to watch us drown (the opening image is an overhead shot of waves crashing against Freddie’s ship).  Mihai Malaimare Jr.‘s cinematography, Greenwood’s score, Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty‘s editing all serve to slowly push us into the madness of the characters, and then the jaw-dropping performances finally drag us under.

I’m not quite sure how to crack the film, but I could go on for pages and pages describing the greatness of the lead performances.  Their broken, angry, desperate characters are played with conviction so complete that it’s utterly terrifying.  Phoenix’s Freddie isn’t movie-insane.  He’s not insane in the big, flashy “Look at all my tics to show how nutty I am”-way.  Freddie has bursts of rage and can get a might twitchy, but the subtlety in the performance is what makes the character terrifying and absolutely captivating.

Phoenix’s chemistry with his co-stars is sublime, and Hoffman plays Dodd so well that we can understand why people would be drawn to The Cause even though the philosophy is weak-sauce new-age nonsense fueled only by its leader’s charisma.  We must be convinced that there’s only one person in the world who can control Freddie, and that person is Lancaster Dodd.  And the only person who can control Dodd is Peggy.  She has gone so far down the rabbit hole that she is no longer merely an adherent to the Cause.  She is its unseen force, and Adams’ screen presence allows her to dominate every scene she needs to.  Peggy is the only person who can break apart Freddie and Dodd, and she would do it not to protect her husband, but to protect his work.  Ironically, she shares the same dependency as Freddie.

The similarity between The Cause and Scientology is easily apparent, but not particularly interesting.  Anderson isn’t doing a critique on the controversial religion just like There Will Be Blood isn’t a comment on the early 20th-century oil industry.  The Cause is merely a gateway to see how people can try to complement each other and end up causing more harm than good.  Freddie and Dodd need each other but their need may end up destroying them both.  But that’s only one piece of a very large puzzle, and I couldn’t solve it in one viewing.

I will finish with this note: After I left The Master, I felt the exact same way as I did when I left There Will Be Blood.  I was confused and overwhelmed, and I didn’t know precisely what to make of the previous two-and-a-half hours.  The craft was undeniable, and the performances were superb, but I couldn’t appreciate the whole picture.  But upon repeat viewings, I love There Will Be Blood more and more.  I hope I will feel the same way towards The Master, but after one viewing I know that at the very least I deeply respect Anderson’s new film and can’t wait to sink back into its cold, dark waters.

Rating: 8.9 out of 10

For all of our TIFF 2012 coverage, click here.  Here are links to all of my TIFF 2012 reviews:

  • potterboy

    did you see it in 70MM? if so, how was it?

    • Amazing

      I saw it in 70mm in the village…absolutely beautiful….but i totally agree with the reviewer…deff need a repeat visit

  • charles_b


  • jack

    that’s the second time you’ve used lugubrious in a review this week….stop going to the thesaurus and just write….and maybe get an editor before you post reviews. The sloppiness in your writing is making me feel lugubrious

  • murdernexxus

    PTA is the master…i met him in west tx when he made There Will Be Blood. hes a really nice guy. very laid back. i was hired as Paul Danos stand-in and PTA let me be in a bunch of scenes. I am forever honored to be in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. Can’t wait to see The Master!

  • tinypony

    Quality, honest review. Sure, the phrasing could be edited/tightened a bit, but this is the Internet, so I guess that’s OK.

  • junierizzle

    This is what I hope DOESN’T happen to me. I felt the same way about There will be blood. I certainly appreciate it more after another viewing but as Roger Ebert wrote: “I’m not sure of it’s greatness.”

    The first time I saw The Master trailer I thought, I hope I don’t finally appreciate it years later after Ive seen it a couple of times, like There Will Be Blood.

  • Wwww

    Beautiful looking film, with great performances…but slow as molasses.

    Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha was the best film I’ve seen in Toronto so far.

    Also, Place Beyond the Pines is WAY overrated.

  • Bo

    Never have like PTA’s films and doubt I will this one. Yet, I will still go to see it because at least PTA attempts to tackle large themes. He just can’t pull it off; at least not to me. I thought There Will Be Blood was interesting upon first viewing, but unsucessful in its attempts. Further viewing makes it impossible to watch what with all its bluster and hallowness at its core. I fear the same with The Master. Mr. Phoenix is a strange and talented energy so that will be of interest. Day-Lewis as well, but his work just didn’t work as a whole attempting to fit into the fabric of Blood. Interesting failures as they are regarding PTA films, they are still failures in my mind. Boogie Nights is just junk and my regrets to those who will be offended by my views. Yet, they are mine and as such much remain respectfull toward them.

  • Slice

    I always pony up the dough for PTA movies, but every single time I go home with the exact same feeling – some amazing scenes that never add up to more than an average movie.

    Sydney – Phillip Baker Hall and Samuel L, but a snoozer
    Boogie Nights – Sister Christian, but a snoozer
    Magnolia – John C. Riley’s final soliloquy, but a snoozer
    Punch Drunk Love – snoozer all the way through
    There Will be Blood – “I’m a family man- I run a family business,” but a snoozer

    It’s not a short attention span, his stuff just feels like a scene out of a Eugene O’Neill play that never ends.

    • Moderoy

      Slice, you’re the snoozer. Sounds like you should stick to Will Smith movies and the like.

      • Trick

        Get in touch with your inner artist maaaaaan

        Honestly tho, I could watch There Will Be Blood once a day and never tire of that movie.
        When you’ve seen it so many times, the symbolism just…oozes =)

      • Slice

        I haven’t seen a Will Smith movie since the first Men in Black.

        And just because a camera doesn’t cut every seven seconds doesn’t make it “art.” Nor the opposite.

        Next time give examples instead of insults.

  • iknownothing

    hahahah oh man

  • Mike F.

    I truly do not understand how there are people that do not appreciate Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. Each film he makes is a work of passion and hard work. Have you seen a film of his that was not shot gorgeously? Have you seen a film of his where the performances were not incredible? The screenplays he writes deal with ambitious themes. There Will Be Blood, and I almost guarantee this, will one day be near the very top of those greatest films of all time lists. With respect to the other commenter, I do not see a “hollow” point to the story. Or, as with another commenter, see it as boring in any sense of the word. Understanding what Daniel Plainview is setting up and how he is doing it with such greed and intensity completely holds my attention.

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  • Kevin K

    Does anyone have a list of the theaters The Master is opening in this weekend? I live in Chicago, so I am hoping but can’t find it…

    Also, I’d love it if anyone knew where it would be shown in 70mm.

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