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Nordling Loves THE MASTER!

Nordling here.

At this point, it can be safely said that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of America's most gifted and important filmmakers.  THERE WILL BE BLOOD, with some distance from it, can be called a genuine masterpiece.  A follow-up from that phenomenal work would likely be more sedate, and THE MASTER certainly falls into that category when it comes to the scale of the film.  But the power and emotion of THE MASTER are no less grand.  

THERE WILL BE BLOOD was both epic and allegorical in the telling of its story of religion and capitalism, and yet intimate in its examination of a relationship between two driven and flawed men.  THE MASTER is similar in that regard; it's also about the struggle of two very flawed men, in conflict and in synchronicity with each other - Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix), a drunken Navy man, face chiseled out of moonrock and sorrow, and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the sun around which many people orbit.  Quells is utterly lost at the beginning of the film - once World War II ends, he drifts in and out of various jobs and relationships, drunk on his own homemade hooch most of the time, until in a stupor he stumbles onto a luxury yacht hosting the wedding of Lancaster's daughter.  When he wakes in the ship's sleeping quarters, he is led to Dodd, who takes a liking to this brash man, and in particular to his "magical potion."

Lancaster Dodd is also something of an enigma - he is the creator of a new philsophy called "the Cause", which he claims can heal the damaged souls who have suffered over trillions of years ("That's trillion with a T," Dodd tells one skeptic) by past regression therapy.  And Freddie is indeed damaged - he's possibly the most damaged man Lancaster has ever met.  And as Lancaster's relationship with Freddie grows closer, it gives Lancaster's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) concern - it's possible that Freddie could help destroy everything that Lancaster has built up to this point.  The Cause begins to gain new following, and Freddie begins to question not only the dogma but his place in it as well.

This is an incredibly difficult movie to review.  There are larger themes in THE MASTER that are so skillfully put into the story and the subtext, but it feels reductive to point at any one particular thing and say that this is what the movie is about.  On a personal level, the strongest theme that resonated the most with me was how religion can be used to manipulate the wounded, and at the same time, it can also be something that the wounded can use to truly heal themselves.  It's also not as simple as saying that THE MASTER is about a charismatic leader and the people that fall under his sway, because it gets more complicated than that.  You could even say that THE MASTER is a movie about parental issues, as Lancaster Dodd begins to take the role of a surrogate father in Freddie's life.  Judging from the "daddy issues" that seem to pop up in Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, this is a subject with which he is intimately familiar, but THE MASTER (much like MAGNOLIA) is about moving past the damage that our parents inflict and finding our own place in the world as well.  

Joaquin Phoenix has never been better, ever, in any role, than he is in THE MASTER.  It's a performance that seems bigger than awards season.  This, my friends, is truly one of the best performances I've ever seen from an actor.  He's so good that he IS Freddie Quells - a raw nerve that seems to exude the threat of violence and chaos.  One particular scene, as Dodd tries to "process" Freddie into the Cause, is one of the most striking face-offs between actors that I can remember.  We already know how amazing an actor that Philip Seymour Hoffman is, and he gives no less here, but the audience is simply unable to take their eyes off Phoenix.  Amy Adams may have the most difficult job in this one - she doesn't get to rage like Phoenix or Hoffman, but instead she is the steady face of the movement in public, and in private she is a true believer - if not in the Cause, then in the world that Lancaster is trying to build.  She's tremendous.

And as Freddie searches for more meaning in his relationship with Lancaster and the movement, Lancaster himself realizes that what he's created may be bigger than he thought.  In the end, these two men love each other deeply, like two magnets that repel each other until you flip them over, even as the separate paths that their lives must take guide them into different places.  I think THE MASTER is a phenomenal film, easily one of the best of the year, and I can't wait to see it again to dive into it some more.  I've read reviews where the writer felt that the movie ended without a true catharsis, but I disagree - THE MASTER, to me, is about the healing power of faith, and also the healing power of putting aside that faith when it begins to trap and confine.  Paul Thomas Anderson continues to be one of our very best filmmakers - he has been compared to directors like Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick, but with THE MASTER, although those influences are apparent, it's obvious now that Paul Thomas Anderson is absolutely in their league.  This, like THERE WILL BE BLOOD before it, is a masterpiece.

Nordling, out.  Follow me on Twitter!

Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 19, 2012, 7:32 p.m. CST


    by Steve

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 7:32 p.m. CST

    At this point?

    by David Duchovny

    Cool. I'll start saying that right now. smh

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 7:33 p.m. CST

    There Will Be Blood should have won best picture. just sayin.

    by Steve

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 7:37 p.m. CST

    Saw it yesterday. Acting was phenomenal, but...

    by Ian Masterson

    I'm still hesitant on whether or not I liked it or not. Gonna see it again in a couple of days, but... a very, VERY interesting movie .

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 7:44 p.m. CST

    That's a pretty good poster too btw.

    by mistergreen

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 7:45 p.m. CST

    "Incredibly difficult film to review." Translastion:

    by The_Guy_Who_Invented_Coca_Cola

    I know I'm supposed to like this but I didn't get it, so I'll wait until there's more reviews and essays to explain what's so good about it.

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 8:11 p.m. CST

    Respect the cock! Can't wait!

    by UltraTron

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 8:15 p.m. CST

    Does Lee Van Cleef jump over a helicopter?

    by Gary Makin

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 8:19 p.m. CST

    is Torgo in this?

    by mick vance

    he takes care of the place while the master is gone...

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 8:19 p.m. CST

    Hold your mouth

    by Pete

    until you've seen it.

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 8:19 p.m. CST

    I love PTA s films buuut,

    by Wyndam Earle

    this one left me cold and I had a headache by the end. Also, don't wastse your money on the 70mm presentation. It added nothing to the film.

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 8:21 p.m. CST

    PTA likes to make movies about people with mental instabilities.

    by pr0g2west

    This will probably be a great film, but how much longer can PTA ride the "crazy" train. Try something else for a change!

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 9 p.m. CST

    mistergreen - I whole-heartedly agree!

    by gringostar

    One of the better movie posters I have seen in a long time!

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 9:10 p.m. CST

    The Master likes you. Nothing will happen to you.

    by MrWug

    He likes you.

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 9:44 p.m. CST

    gmakin for the win

    by Manatee

    That made me laugh my ass off. I will see this because I'm freaking starved for a good movie.

  • Sept. 19, 2012, 10:12 p.m. CST

    The Master SUCKS!

    by Hadesbc

    I didn't hear a single good thing about the movie coming out of a packed Arclight theater. I don't care how great the performances are if there is no point to the story. A movie without character growth is pointless. A movie without a narrative is pointless. I'm sure there are many of you that will defend PTA, but the hoards of attendees sleeping in the theater during this waste of two plus hours, should be enough of a review to advise against seeing this film. Nordling is adding themes and conclusions that aren't in the movie. It's like a review of Prometheus where people add, oh well the guy at the beginning was Jesus and other lame ideas that might be something the filmmaker thought about doing, but never put it in the movie. Prometheus sucked and so does The Master.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 12:29 a.m. CST

    Walked out of TWBB

    by topaz4206

    Pretentious shit. I'd rather see a Paul W.S. Anderson movie

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 2:01 a.m. CST

    here here here here here...

    by MagicJesus

    here here here here here... I'm a fucking idiot

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 3:06 a.m. CST

    Nice review dude..

    by XX

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 4:05 a.m. CST

    Good writing

    by Glenn

    chiseled out of moonrock and sorrow

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 4:25 a.m. CST

    A pet hate of mine...

    by Azby

    Movie snobs who somehow believe they have the psychic ability to know what everyone else in the theatre is thinking. You know who you are.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 5:51 a.m. CST

    Excellent review, Nordling. You just rose several points in my book.

    by veteran_of_mu

    Clear, enthusiastic and elegant. More like this please.

  • Maybe there's hope for you dingbats yet.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 7:28 a.m. CST

    Which director does PTA try to be this time?

    by m_prevette

    He's already stolen from the playbooks of Scorsese, Altman, Kubrick, just copying them lock stock, like someone using tracing paper to copy a Jack Kirby splash page and calling it their own . People just drop to their knees anyway for this guy.

  • Now look how that boy has grown into his own skin! "The Master" is the one of a few movies this season I am looking forward to.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 7:53 a.m. CST

    WOW that poster is a mind-fuck.

    by Jarrete Barnett

    Precisely the point, I'm sure.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 8:04 a.m. CST

    We need more pretentious directors, they are a dying breed.

    by chifforobe

    Some 'art' movies work, some don't-- but there is a shortage of movies with that ambition, and any kind of a budget to realize it. We will never run out of lowest-common-denominator movies, so don't begrudge those of us who want a little more our handfull, if that, of 'pretentious' directors.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 8:08 a.m. CST

    I'll be seeing this for Hoffman alone.

    by Larry_Sanders

    Phoenix is almost always good, and I'm not a PTA devotee, but I did very much enjoy There Will Be Blood. Cults and organized religions are a fascinating and tricky subject; even if the movie isn't good, I can't imagine it not being interesting.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 8:52 a.m. CST

    Saw it in 70mm at the Cinerama Dome. Looks great, but

    by Brian Hopper

    the film is somewhat challenging to sit through and (the more I think about it) not very good. Worth noting: a handful of people actually walked out of the film in disgust, and I could see why. This film isn't even remotely as impressive as There Will Be Blood, which in spite of its seriously flawed second half has a visual splendor to it as well as an amazing first half and a towering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. The Master is underwritten. The 'story' is actually not all that compelling, and the film has numerous scenes in which you have to endure unlikeable characters repeating tasks or exhaustively interviewing each other as part of their indoctrination into The Cause. There's impressive stuff in the film for sure, like (as usual) Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. But all the moments with a sense of danger in which the film briefly comes alive (one of the best: Hoffman holding forth and being interrupted by a doubter, and their ensuing argument) are wasted as the film reverts to its usual flaccid state. The narrative is weak. Speaking of unlikeable: Joaquin Phoenix. He plays perhaps one of the most unlikeable protagonists ever in a major American film. It is consistently painful and unpleasant to watch him on screen and he appears to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Some would argue: this is the point. But it just becomes really unpleasant as an audience member to sit through his performance. About him, one of the other characters says 'He makes me uncomfortable.' My audience laughed a little at that one. It's like... yup. Worst of all about Phoenix, you watch him and think: is he acting or is this how he really is? I was shocked to find out he's only 37 years old. In the film, he could pass for a hard-living, worn-down 53 year old. I had absolutely zero empathy for his character and could have cared less what happened to him, and I guarantee you the rest of my audience felt the same way. There's much to admire about the film, not least of which is its sense of time and place and its obvious ambition. But it's not a very good film.

  • Some of your are showing your 20ness. Painfully.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 10:17 a.m. CST

    What movie were you reviewing????

    by elecam

    This movie not is about the healing power of faith in any way. I don't want to spoil anything, but when you look at how the movie opens and see what happens with Freddie at the end, it's a complete rejection of that idea.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 10:52 a.m. CST

    Dodd = L Ron Hubbard

    by elecam

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 11:03 a.m. CST

    Did anyone else see a bit of Ron Burgundy in Dodd?

    by Yeah I Wrote That

    When he is preaching, Hoffman is at the top of his already incredible game. You want to believe him so bad. But I couldn't NOT think about Anchorman for most of this film. Hoffman is channeling Will Ferrell's iconic role in almost every scene. Perhaps by coincidence. But in time you will all agree with me! No, I'm not kidding. That doesn't take anything away from the movie though. PTA is an assured filmmaker and there are few people out there creating pure cinema these days. It can be obtuse. But it is carefully constructed, quite funny and moves along at a nice clip. Nordling certainly missed the mark about the healing power of faith thing though. THEMATIC SPOILER AHEAD: Dodd is desperate to maintain his lifestyle and uses the Cause. Freddie is an excellent prop for him. "Curing" him, no matter how long it takes, is an ongoing show for his followers. Besides being a prop, Freddie is also an extremely faithful ally. To Dodd. Not the Cause. And Freddie entertains him! He is unpredictable and often hilariously damaged. Their friendship works because they both feed off of one another as Freddie is able to suddenly have a social life, a purpose, booze, etc. Nom for Best Picture. Nom for PTA. Possible Nom for Hoffman. Nom/possible win for Cinematography. Win for Phoenix.

  • been a good summer for movies, some twists and turns but definitely a summer that will be remembered in cinema history.

  • One of the most obvious movies to be called a masterpiece right from the begining, and by begining i mean both when it was first released, and from the movie's first scenes.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 2:45 p.m. CST

    How can you review this without even mentioning Scientology?

    by Jason

    It's like reviewing Citizen Kane without mentioning William Randolph Hearst.

  • This is an incredibly difficult movie to review. There are larger themes in THE MASTER that are so skillfully put into the story and the subtext, but it feels reductive to point at any one particular thing and say that this is what the movie is about.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 3:36 p.m. CST


    by krull rules

    PTA is a hit or miss director, a very good director, but not sure of himself or his style, unlike Tarantino who wears it proudly, but PTA is still very good, as I am sure this film is (although I heard it was a bit slow for some).

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 4:55 p.m. CST

    Awesome Lee Van Cleef statement above...

    by Darth Macchio

    And while I'm kinda hit or miss on PTA films as well as others who've mentioned the same thing I just mentioned, I will say that having Lee Van Cleef flip over a helicopter in this movie might have been somewhat distracting. But awesome.

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 7:42 p.m. CST


    by dancetothebeatofthelivingdead

    Hard Eight. Boogie Nights. Magnolia. Those films were not fucking sedate by any stretch of the imagination and it was only when Anderson released Punch Drunk Love that his films got sedate. Now, Punch Drunk Love, while very good, is, in my opinion, a misstep for Anderson. Consider: Hard Eight, great first movie. Boogie Nights: A masterpiece and possibly the sweetest allegory for family ever written drenched in filth. Beautiful juxtaposition. Magnolia: Masterpice. There Will Be Blood: Masterpiece, although I think it is talked about as if it were perfect when it is not. I think BN and Magnolia are better movies than TWBB, but again, that is simply my opinion. Punch Drunk Love? Very Good Movie, so you see? A very good movie for this guy is a mis-step ha ha. Now...everything I've seen from The new movie has me a little worried that we're about to see another misstep, but I'm gonna go give it its' day in court either way. I just hope his next movie, which sounds a little more fun than his most recent work will be less......................................sedate

  • Sept. 20, 2012, 8:33 p.m. CST


    by Pete

  • which basically is like saying this is just a screenplay that a guy made up as he went along without even knowing where he was going with it. But it doesn't matter, Anderson can just sit back in his chair while the Hollywood elite sucks his cock and calls him a genius.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 3:45 a.m. CST

    My take on the movie:

    by applescruff

    The Master is elusive, to be sure. The actual dominating theme of the movie isn't thrown in your face constantly. But it's not that hard to get what's going on. To my mind, the movie is about the struggle between man's most primal, animalistic instincts and our need to be civil, proper members of society. Soldiers at war are made to behave like animals and when they come home they are told to put that aside and assimilate themselves back into the civil world. But once you've seen the things they've seen and done the things they've done, how do you tame the animal? A common way for many soldiers has been belief systems; religions, cults, etc. In many ways the teachings of most belief systems are exercises in domestication. Especially in the case of cults such as Scientology, the goal is to bend the subject to the will of the teacher, and assert dominance in order to get the desired result. Our main character Freddie is shown as a complete savage in the beginning of the film, a man who only lives to indulge each base, primal urge that pops in his brain. Someone who humps everything that moves and ingests anything he can put in his mouth. You know, like a dog. Lancaster Dodd is constantly saying that man is not animal. That we live above that. But what he truly believes is that the people around him are pets he can control with the right conditions. Freddie appears to him as his ultimate challenge; the wildest animal he's tamed yet. Yet he also finds something alluring about the man. Perhaps because there's a bit of wild animal in him as well. We only get brief indications that confirm this when he blows up on a few dissenters throughout the film. We also see how even The Master has a master, when we come to discover the domination techniques his wife uses on him. Perhaps he also identifies with Freddie as a fellow pet. The climactic sequence in the jail cell couldn't possibly be more explicit about this theme. On the left side of the screen, we have Freddie wailing and biting and thrashing. On the right side is Dodd, posing calmly in his suit, perfectly composed. And they're both locked in cages.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 3:52 a.m. CST

    This is the problem I have with all Paul Thomas Anderson films...

    by travismays

    They start strong, and then drift into nonsensical convoluted pretentiousness. This doesn't sound to be any different.

  • I was watching Lawrence of Arabia today, and I thought "well, that's not short of being a masterpiece..." But is There Will be Blood Lawrence of Arabia? C'mon. Why is everything either Superb, Terrible, or mediocre? There is a vast distance between "Masterpiece" (pinnacle of cinema) and "Good." I watched There Will be Blood once, and I was somewhat relieved when it was over. I thought it was "good/interesting/strange" all at the same time. Does this make it a masterpiece? Not in a million years. As I said, Lawrence of Arabia is probably a masterpiece. So is Amadeus. So is Gone with the Wind and The 400 Blows. Movies like that are just not made anymore.