The Master (2012)

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A boozy, self-destructive WWII veteran falls in with a bizarre seafaring cult led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd.

In post-WWII America, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a volatile US Navy veteran who has resorted to sex and liquor in order to feel like himself again. One late night in San Francisco, Freddie drunkenly stumbles aboard a large yacht. When he awakens, he discovers that he is surrounded by members of “The Cause”, a bizarre philosophical and spiritual cult headed by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Part self-help guru, part spiritual father, Dodd immediately takes an interest in Freddie and offers him to join their group. With few options left, Freddie becomes involved with The Cause and undergoes numerous psychological tests in order to progress to a higher state of being. Along the way, he makes the acquaintance of various fellow voyagers, including Dodd’s much younger wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) and his increasingly skeptical son Val (Jesse Plemons).

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The Master was released in 2012 as the brainchild of acclaimed writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie NightsThere Will Be Blood). Controversy followed the film’s release due to the cult in the movie being compared to Scientology, but The Master received hefty critical acclaim — all three of its leads (Hoffman, Phoenix, and Adams) earned Academy Award nominations for their work.

The movie, which premiered at the 2012 Venice Film Festival, underperformed at the box office, but still received rave reviews from Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor, among others. Sadly, it was also the fifth and final collaboration between Anderson and Hoffman, the latter of whom died tragically in February 2014 of a drug overdose.

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Anderson is widely known as a courageous risk-taker in the industry, bending the rules of filmmaking to his advantage. To be sure, he’s a director that I respect due to his habit of making innovative, technically proficient projects. The Master has an authentic old-school feel to it, having been shot on 70mm film, and Anderson certainly did his homework on the time period. The Master takes place in a 1950s America where a Navy veteran lacks fulfillment in his life and struggles to re-enter civilian society. The film doesn’t shy away from weighty subjects and features some very powerful performances, smart dialogue, and excellent cinematography and music.

However, The Master doesn’t have enough forward momentum, narratively speaking, to sustain all of its important themes. The film feels more like a series of interconnected vignettes as opposed to a cohesive, traditional story. I’ll give Anderson & Co. credit for taking risks and creating a great-looking movie. But ultimately, The Master doesn’t quite reach masterpiece level due to its own internal contradictions and a labored third act.

Grade: C+

  • Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, and Megan Ellison
  • Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Ambyr Childers
  • Director of Photography — Mihai Malaimare Jr.
  • Music by Jonny Greenwood
  • Edited by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty
  • Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
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