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John Ary On THE MASTER!!



John Ary here with a look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a slow-moving film that can be difficult at times to watch, but well worth the price of admission.  The cinematography is stunning, especially in the 70mm format.  The music and sound design are exquisite.  And Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman bring their A-game.  Just a word of warning though.... If you’re hoping to witness broad character arcs, any kind of exciting action scenes or meet characters that you like and root for, temper down your expectations.

We spend the first 40 minutes of the film getting to know Freddie Quell, an outcast with a drinking problem.  Freddie doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, oblivious of normal social conventions and slightly brain damaged.  He stumbles into the flock of Lancaster Dodd, a man who claims that he can unlock the memories of your past lives and is on the cusp of discovering the secrets of man’s trillion year history.  The two form an unlikely friendship that bucks normal conventions and their own core beliefs.  

I found myself put off by The Master in the first half of the film, finding little to like about Freddie.  Joaquin’s performance is physical, mesmorizing and heartbreaking, but the protagonist he plays seems like such an awful human being, its difficult to find much reason to care about his plight or even hope his storyline meets with a happy outcome.  He’s a rascal in the highest regard.  It wasn’t until he forms a deeper bond with Lancaster Dodd that we get the pleasure of seeing both characters exposed.  Anderson creates palpable tension in scenes where the characters have their beliefs challenged.  Pushing these two men beyond their comfort zone creates verbal explosions, childish tantrums and somehow deepens their bond.  With that said, it at no time feels like we reach any kind of resolution with these characters.  Their thoughts about the world they inhabit and each other seem unchanged by the end of the film.   Anderson puts these men under stress more to unveil their true character than propel them through the narrative.

If I had to summarize the style of Paul Thomas Anderson’s storytelling for this film in one word it would be “subtle.”  The actors portray more information through their facial expressions and body language than actual words.  The camera pines over the faces of the characters, capturing every facial tick, solitary glance and errant tear. It's these moments, when our subjects drop their guard to expose their true thoughts, motivations and desires that the brilliant cinematography provides loving portraits of their faces, constantly daring you to intimately stare into their eyes.  It can be uncomfortable to watch, but usually impossible to look away.

This film wants nothing more from you than to fixate on its characters, with the plot taking a back seat.  While I appreciate the filmmaker's approach, at times I felt like I was waiting for something more.  Several of Freddy’s shenanaggins from earlier in the film, tend to replay themselves over and over.  With the exception of a few scenes, we are rarely surprised by the the actions of the characters.  They all stay on a steady course, playing their roles through to fruition without a pause or second thought.  

If you have the chance, please see it in 70mm.  The colors and depth of the celluloid are stunning, I'm sure creating a palpable difference between its digital counterpart.  Also the score by Jonny Greenwood gives the film a beautiful powerful resonance.  From a technical standpoint The Master is a triumph.

The biggest compliment I can give to the film though is this: Don’t go see it alone as it demands a conversation afterwards.  Paul Thomas Anderson never fully exposes his characters, always holding back just a little for you to form your own interpretations.  This is the kind of movie that is sure to spark some lively debates afterwards.  


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Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 13, 2012, 7:54 p.m. CST

    I'm there

    by murray_hamilton

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 8:02 p.m. CST

    Yo tambien!

    by billprestonesquire

    Can not wait to see his follow-up to There Will Be Blood! I've always thought that Joaquin had serious potential that has yet to be fully utilized. From what I've seen in the trailers, he might have actually redeemed himself after that mess of bullshit that was I'm Still Here.

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 8:26 p.m. CST

    Yay! I'm gonna see this movie in 70 mil yay!

    by UltraTron

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 8:27 p.m. CST

    i love this review

    by neosporing

    i wish i could wax eloquence about film as you just have... bravo

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 8:28 p.m. CST


    by Michael James Edwards

    John always seems to have a pretty superficial review of films... I though this was much deeper than this...and I personally found plenty to like about both characters...they're both...rough sketches trying to find their place...and they find support and understanding in each other. I don't feel the characters were "unlikable" I was at the screening in SF in The Castro Theater. These were my initial thoughts walking out. I'm going to do a longer one on a second viewing.

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 8:36 p.m. CST

    this reviewer sounds like a real douchebag

    by David Duchovny

    but i couldn't stand Nordling either at first and he grew on me. We shall see.

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 8:42 p.m. CST

    Is there anyway to find out which theaters have 70 mm?

    by AzulTool

  • Damn, I don't know what to say! John Ary, please write this up asap!!!

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 9 p.m. CST

    @azultool - there is a website that shows you where 70mm theatres are

    by Detective_Fingerling

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 9:27 p.m. CST

    Saw it by myself...

    by SenatorJeffersonSmith

    ...and I feel no worse for having done so. Capone was at the screening, so maybe we were seeing it together in spirit. Then I talked at no one for a while on twitter about it.

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 9:49 p.m. CST

    azultool: The Grand Lake is showing this in 70mm starting Sept. 24th!

    by EastBayFrankenstein

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 10:20 p.m. CST

    @eastbay frank

    by Michael James Edwards

    I'll see u there!!! I'm also in the east bay, so excited for the Grand Lake!

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 10:40 p.m. CST

    Freddie Quell is Barry Egan's biological father.

    by Julius Dithers

    Naw. But that's the vibe I'm getting from Phoenix. Hah. Wouldn't that be something? Phoenix imitates Sandler.

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 10:53 p.m. CST

    Seeing this right now in NYC

    by shalashaska

    What's up!! From the mezzanine of lincoln center

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 10:54 p.m. CST

    Hey astronut. Is Halloween coming to theaters for real? For really real?!

    by adeceasedfan

    Are you sure? You seem quite confident. Just checking.

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 10:55 p.m. CST

    Oops....meant "Sept. 21st" at the Grand Lake!

    by EastBayFrankenstein

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 11:12 p.m. CST

    What's with this "root for" junk?

    by Glenn

    That shouldn't be part of a film reviewer's lexicon. Raging Bull? French Connection? Taxi Driver? Great movies with assholes at their centers. Give me someone whose obsessions I can follow but not necessarily partake in, and I'm there. This is cinema for adults, not for kids who see the human condition in black-and-white. There's also very little specificity in this review other than gisting with "I dunno, I need some time to think it over" -- and if that's the case, then do us all a favor: Think it over! THEN review the goddamn film. I'm usually pretty forgiving of the reviews on this site, even when they're 2/3 synopsis and the rest a summing up of strength/flaws. But this guy needs another decade of incubation before unleashing his inchoate mumblings upon those of us fully in knowledge of complexity in the real world, reflected by uncompromising artists of the day. I'm not even defending the film (yet) since I haven't seen it -- but I'm tiring rapidly of AICN endorsing these silly musings by non-devoted amateurs posing as cineastes. (I don't include the Kidd in this, the guy has taste.) Rant away at me, but good solid criticism on the net, when legitimate papers are dying, is necessary now more than ever.

  • Sept. 13, 2012, 11:47 p.m. CST

    A completely honest review - I can dig it.

    by Muldoon

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 12:16 a.m. CST


    by Badltnt310

    I too saw it in 70MM. While I agree there is no comparison to video and looks great for any film that utilizes it, I'm curious why the issue seems to be getting so much attention for this particular film when The Dark Knight rises was also shot completely with film, with much of it being shot in the IMAX format - which has an even higher resolution than 70MM. Was it just because so many people were caught up with it being a Batman movie that they didn't bother to think about the choice to shoot it in a high-res film format? I also don't remember so much attention being given over the benefits of celluloid when Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was released last year - another title shot on film that had just as impressive cinematography as The Master.

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 1:13 a.m. CST

    Just in: Creepythinman's review of Cloud Atlas!

    by FloatingHolmes

    Review of Cloud Atlas, by Creepythinman. "The plastic arts have been graced with a true masterpiece. Cloud Atlas is way insightful. My commentary on the plastic arts is that I'm way smarter than you. ...Oh yeah, and AICN sucks. It sucks so bad that you can find me posting ther 24/7. So, in conclusion: Cloud Atlas-- plastic arts. AICN -- sucks. Peace, out." Thank you, Creepythinman. And keep us posted on when your trade paperback is coming out!

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 2:09 a.m. CST

    floatingholmes, HOW DROLL!!!FACT!!!

    by CreepyThinMan

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 2:30 a.m. CST

    Cant Wait For This Movie: Masterful director and incredible cast

    by ass clown

    I've been looking forward to this one and I don't need likable characters or big explosions to get me excited.

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 3:07 a.m. CST

    It was awesome

    by shalashaska

    And I want to see it again. It sucked that I had to pee during the last half so bad. I couldnt concentrate.

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 3:27 a.m. CST


    by Glenn

    Amen, brotha! Completely WRONG person to be reviewing mature works. But then, I've thought he was a kid ever since watching the first 32 seconds of his first video review. Never again.

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 3:29 a.m. CST

    @ creepythinmanlives

    by Glenn

    I wish your name would change to creepythinmandies. Quit with the stupid "fact!!" clamoring. It makes you look like an attention-seeking missile made out of ritalin.

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 3:54 a.m. CST


    by CreepyThinMan

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 6:23 a.m. CST

    PSH looks like a blonde Ron Swanson

    by mooli_mooli

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 7:11 a.m. CST

    Subtext, Metaphore, Over-Arcing themes, Underlying Meaning?

    by KillaKane

    When you're reviewing PT Anderson, you should at least allude to some of this? Surely? Taking this type of film at face value is pointless

  • Get him. *yawn* So I see PTA disappeared even further up his asshole with this new "character study." Let's face it, all of PTA's best days were pre-There Will Be Blood. The Master sounds every bit and more as pretentious as PTA's last hatching.

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 8:20 a.m. CST


    by John Ary

    As someone with a great love for Magnolia, The Master seems a bit light in regards to sub-text, themes and metaphor. Frankly, it was a bit disappointing towards the end of the film when the metaphor and over-arcing theme is completely laid out in the final conversation between Freddie and Lancaster. In the end, I believe most of this film is meant to be taken at face value.

  • Even if Seymor is some Scientology D-bag, something about the way Joaquin carries himself makes me want to see him run over by that ship. And I like the guy in a lot of films.

  • So why do I continuted to be banned? I don't get it.

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 11:07 a.m. CST

    Well, PTD does hire a mean cinematographer.

    by Flip63Hole

    Too bad the kid can't tell a story for the life of him. Living in Los Angeles so long, can eat your soul. Having a bunch of fanboy yes-man feeding your ego can't help...

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 1:16 p.m. CST

    movies aren't slow and are.

    by FleshMachine

    2001, tree of life...the master...etc etc...they are not slow and boring. they are perfect pieces of art. if you don't get it..well, it says more about you than the films.

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 1:39 p.m. CST


    by John Ary

    Thanks for reading/viewing my thoughts on The Master. While I appreciate your feedback, I would ask that you read/watch the entire piece before commenting. At no time did I ever use the word "boring" to describe the movie. Actually, if you scan past the first few words, you'll notice that I said the film is "well worth the price of admission." Also, I would disagree with your statement. I believe works of art can indeed sometimes be slow and/or boring. Sincerely, John "The Most Boring Guy Ever" Ary

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 2:39 p.m. CST

    :D creepythinmanlives

    by Glenn

    What's great about this guy is, he does all the work for me, I don't even have to say a thing. Anyway, why would I bother sucking the shit out of your bunghole when it freely flows out of your brain? Maybe I'm lazy but I prefer to let mental gravity work its charms, you 21st Century Newton, you...

  • Sept. 14, 2012, 7:26 p.m. CST

    2001 is boring.

    by shutupfanboy

    And I love Sci Fi. Its revered, because its old and it was one of the few Sci Fi flicks to make money.

  • Performance are amazing, cinematography is fantastic. Story is an unresolved mess that will only appeal to a small awkward demographic. Really hate to have to type that, but it's true. See it for yourself and tell me I'm wrong.

  • Sept. 15, 2012, 3:03 p.m. CST

    every movie these days has great cinematography

    by cgih8r

    gonna wait for this one on DVD. I appreciate Anderson's unique approach to films but I find it weird that everyone seems to worship at his feet, just listen to Quentin Taratino talk about him YEESH, they should make a movie just about that artist worship mentality. Anderson said himself that he just made this story up as he went along without any idea of where it would lead. Some may say that adds to it's brilliance but to me that's like admitting you don't have anything to say. It becomes this interpretation game that only the self proclaimed "intellectuals" can appreciate or understand. It reminds me a bit of the Emperor's Clothes.

  • Sept. 15, 2012, 9:29 p.m. CST

    There should not necessarily be resolution in this film.

    by annie_michael_hall

    The entire film for me became a discussion of how our past affects us. And how emotion vs. logic or conscious thought is affected by our own memories. But our past (like the wake of Freddie's battleship) is not fixed, as it dictates and shapes the ways that we act now which then becomes the past. How much can we actually change the way we act? And how does our chosen path, or lack thereof, to "altering" behavior actually effect our well-being and general satisfaction with our lives. In the end, the lack of resolution was a demonstration of Freddy's own choices and approaches to all of these things, and how he chose to ultimately live his life. To a lesser extent, I also thought the film was a study of the family - and how we have to sacrifice things to have a family, and to have others in our lives. I thought the film was great. While "The Master" has no big "I Drink Your Milkshake" or "Bastard In A Basket" moments - I thought the final scene between Freddy and Lancaster came pretty close. I also did see the film twice, one time right after the next, and seeing it again was really beneficial, especially taking in that first act again.