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The Kidd Vs. THE MASTER

 

There's a reason Paul Thomas Anderson would register as a top candidate if you were having a debate with your fellow film geeks about the best working director today. Heading into his latest effort, it's been nothing but undeniable success for him. Six films have been written and directed by his hand, and all six have amounted to tremendous stories that you want to show others immediately when they ask if you've seen anything good lately. BOOGIE NIGHTS still ranks as my favorite of the bunch, but I'm not sure many films in general get much better than THERE WILL BE BLOOD, which really looks like it was robbed of the Best Picture Oscar that year when NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN took home the top prize. 

All too familiar with Anderson's track record of excellence, I was looking forward to see what he had in store for me with THE MASTER. As usual, I always go in just hoping for a good movie. I try my damndest not to let my expectations get the best of me, because that's where you wind up setting yourself up for disappointment when they're not met to your liking. If Anderson had another superb piece of filmmaking up his sleeve, it'd be an extra bonus for me. 

So how is THE MASTER? It's pretty good. It's not great, but, as usual, it's still an excellent film, from its complex characters to its visual flair. However, for me, it'd probably fall on the level as his PUNCHDRUNK LOVE - very solid films that just lack some type of connection with the viewer... the lesser of his repertoire. Most directors would kill to have something like THE MASTER be one of their... I don't want to say "worse," because this isn't a bad film by any means... but let's just say it's a bit colder than some of his previous pictures and doesn't have the same biting story and clear vision as the rest of his catalog. 

I was very curious to see what Anderson had lined up, having heard that he was tackling Scientology on some level with THE MASTER, and indeed he does, although you'll never hear the cult-like religion mentioned by name in the film. Instead it's simply The Cause, and it's fronted by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd, known simply to his followers as the Master. The core of his beliefs is that the spirit of one's being exists through time, as in it time travels from period to period and body to body, inhabiting a number of personalities from the time of its conception until the moment it no longer ceases to exist. Those spirits don't die as their human hosts do; they just travel between different vessels, carrying with them the experiences and memories and troubles of their previous homes. As a result of this long timeline, the body's present troubles can be examined by looking at events past and, according to the Master, illnesses can be treated before returning to a past life before the ailment ever occurred. It absolutely sounds crazy, but with weak-willed people looking for some type of answers to life's big questions receiving some type of explanation they can rationalize, that's how these fringe religious groups continue to amass followers. And why shouldn't they believe the Master? Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal as Dodd - someone who describes himself as "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher..." and a hopelessly inquisitive man - is filled with such fervor and conviction that for someone to believe something as far-fetched so ardently, they must know it's true... they must have some knowledge that you don't, which you now must seek to acquire. 

One such sheep that gets caught up in this system of beliefs is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an ex-Navy seaman looking to find his place in the world after World War II. He has a nervous condition resulting from his military experience. He’s also both sexually obsessed and frustrated at the same time, and he has a penchant for violence with a short temper that is often provoked by the most harmless of actions – like you just standing there looking the way you look. He’s drifted from job to job once his service ended, but with only a past filled with troubles to leave behind, Quell is searching for an identity for himself now – a prime candidate to be drawn into the persuasive ideas of the Cause, which promise a sense of belonging, a sense of community, even if it means being broken down and rebuilt with a mindset susceptible to control.

When their paths cross, THE MASTER explodes into some intensely spellbinding confrontations between them. From the moment they engage in Freddie’s first informal processing for the Cause, which is a series of questions, some seemingly random, which subtlely and matter-of-factly delve into some of the more personal and darker aspects of one’s personality and past, you can see both of these fine actors are bringing their best to bounce off the other’s performance.

    

Phoenix is strong in the role, but Freddie isn’t nearly as complex as his Master… the Master. There’s much less of an arc to a man whose first reaction to anything against him is to bring violence. Even as he’s deemed beyond help by the Master’s wife (Amy Adams) and son-in-law (Rami Malek), both of whom are unwaveringly devoted to the Cause, there’s a sense that he’ll never let go of control as he goes through a regular routine of exercises that are designed to strip his self of individuality away from him, pushing him more towards a group think. Freddie’s lack of focus and concentration and probably intelligence keep the drifter from ever finding a home, even if that home is formed based on the ideas of a man telling tales of science fiction and supernatural events.

But Hoffman is really the fire of the film. You can’t stop him; you can only hope to contain him, and much of that containment comes from shared screen time with Phoenix, as the Master must relegate himself to a secondary role as we follow Freddie’s continued path of aimlessly wandering through life. However, when Hoffman has all focus on him, sans Phoenix, you’re witnessing something incredible, with Hoffman serving as no different than a charismatic reverend that’s able to lift his congregation up merely by using his words, and then is able to command their specific actions, because they’ll easily given themselves up to him. His words do nothing more than fill a void for people who need some void repair done. He’s like a walking horoscope, telling you things that you can look for some truth in and, as a byproduct of that, support.

There’s a fiery exchange between the Master and a non-believer during a gathering early in the film, which leads to Hoffman going on the offensive in order to play defense from the skepticism and questions that surround his teachings, but all it does it leads to some bigger questions about the motivations for the Cause, which I think weaken THE MASTER. From this grilling, Hoffman is able to rattle off the basics of his beliefs quickly and firmly, as if he does believe everything he passes along wholeheartedly. However, there’s a moment later in the film where his son unequivocally states to Freddie that the Master is just making it up as he goes along, a claim that seems to gain some credence a bit later when it comes time for the presentation of Book 2 of the Cause and any changes that may come with it. Does the Master believe what he preaches? Is it all bullshit that he’s making up as he goes? If so, why does he do it, as it doesn’t appear he’s gaining anything financial from his movement? Is it acceptance from others he himself desires? By THE MASTER choosing to tell the story of Freddie, we’re left with a far more fascinating examination of the Master unresolved, as the questions of how and why surrounding him remain as fresh as they were upon our introduction to him. An entirely different film could be made just taking a look at his process, one that I’d welcome as I’d like to see Hoffman really into the headspace of what makes a complex character like that tick, but, because Anderson never really digs any deeper than the service to come up with answers for the Master, the film feels a bit incomplete.

        

There are stretches when THE MASTER is brilliant and mysterious and gorgeous to watch. Other times, it can be maddening and frustrating and boring, with sequences that seem to take quite some time to develop for little payoff. There are a vast array of interesting ideas dealing with Scientology and religion and identity and control that Anderson does tackle, but there’s only so much intelligence that can be hoisted upon one film. That doesn’t mean THE MASTER ever dumbs itself down. In fact, it’s quite the opposite… THE MASTER never lets up on forcing you to think about and consider the topics it chooses to bring to the forefront. The problem with that though is that THE MASTER tries to do too much at one time, and it can overwhelm the film in bouts.

The two lead performances here make THE MASTER as good as it is, and this still is a very quality picture from Paul Thomas Anderson. However, it can be bloated in parts, and the skittishness to really dive into what makes the Master by focusing on the unwavering arc of Freddie for far too long prevent it from being another classic notch in the director’s belt. 

 

-Billy Donnelly

"The Infamous Billy The Kidd"

BillyTheKidd@aintitcool.com

Follow me on Twitter.

Readers Talkback
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  • Sept. 21, 2012, 5:07 a.m. CST

    is Torgo here?

    by mick vance

    we came to see Torgo...

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 5:37 a.m. CST

    i think u armond white with an alias

    by Art

    dang

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 5:40 a.m. CST

    The Kidd is not very bright

    by JoseJones

    Sorry guy, but Amy Adams is his wife. How does this pass the editors? How do you have a job reviewing movies? Fairly obvious she is not his daughter... Jesus, how hard is it to watch a basic film and understand who is the wife and who is the daughter... if you really thought she was his daughter, you have no hope. fuck you, The Kidd.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 6:44 a.m. CST

    typo in review

    by shalashaska

    You credit the role of the Master's daughter to Amy Adams. but thats his wife. His daughter is Ambyr Childers. I would also like to add that she is damn hot. I loved the movie to hell, but this is an otherwise extremely solid review.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 6:49 a.m. CST

    @josejones

    by shalashaska

    Yeah i mean she jerked him off in the bathroom for christs sake

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 7:21 a.m. CST

    Adams was his wife, not daughter

    by Steve Giunta

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 7:21 a.m. CST

    It's not great but it's excellent?

    by Tristan

    I just assumed an excellent movie is great by definition.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 7:30 a.m. CST

    Seriously?

    by chris

    nice typo "From the moment they engage in Freddie’s first informal processing for the Cause, which is a serious of questions"

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 7:38 a.m. CST

    Okay, who forgot to give The Kidd his meds?

    by Inexplicable_Nuclear_Balls

    It's the only reasonable explanation. Otherwise... yikes.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 8:34 a.m. CST

    i actually agree with mr kidd

    by misterfurly

    it was really good with great performances, but you just didnt care about the characters very much. Phoenix is great but plays it so crazy its hard to feel sympathy or relate, both their motivations and arcs arent super strong. Its a character study with not a ton of plot but you arent very emotionally connected to the characters. I cared more about adam sandler and daniel plainview and they both had more clear motivation and goals. Visually PT is amazing and theres really fantastic stuff and itsa great piece in his overall work but im looking forward to his next one as it sounds more comedic. When PT does humor its fucking awesome (mattress man, feel feel feel feel the heat etc) Im glad theres someone making these type of films though and the 70mm looks cool and hi def .

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 9:05 a.m. CST

    It's pretty good, not great, but excellent?

    by JackSlater4

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 9:12 a.m. CST

    This review was pretty good, not great, but excellent.

    by MISTER RUMBLES

    Just kidding. It was fucking retarded. I wrote more coherent reviews in middle school.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 9:12 a.m. CST

    I agree with josejones (and his friends, Paco, Pico, Pietra)

    by Smarty_Feldman

    The Kidd is a really bad writer and reviewer. Kinda fits the overall vibe of the site lately though, eh? Almost as if the suckitude of the site itself spontaneously generated it's suck in human form and that suck is The Kidd. Almost? I'm sure that's what it is.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 9:14 a.m. CST

    This reads like Harry's Amazing Spiderman review.

    by MISTER RUMBLES

    It’d be amazing! I can be amazing. This is almost amazing. What the fucking shit? ADD meds are somethin' else, aren't they?

  • And I quote, "So how is THE MASTER? It's pretty good. It's not great, but, as usual, it's still an excellent film, from its complex characters to its visual flair. However, for me, it'd probably fall on the level as his PUNCHDRUNK LOVE - very solid films that just lack some type of connection with the viewer... the lesser of his repertoire. Most directors would kill to have something like THE MASTER be one of their..." *bangs head on wall*

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 9:39 a.m. CST

    I disagree, Master is a fascinating experience.

    by knowthyself

    I don't get people's wishy washiness with this movie.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 10:50 a.m. CST

    ...until the moment it no longer ceases to exist

    by john

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 11:01 a.m. CST

    PTA: The Cinema of Humiliation

    by SutureSelf

    Paul Thomas Anderson’s stock-in-trade is what I call the cinema of humiliation. The power of his most noted scenes comes from the discomfort of watching one person humiliate another. In “Boogie Nights,” Roller Girl is humiliated by her high-school classmates, leading to her participation in porn. The William H. Macy character’s ongoing sexual humiliation by his wife leads directly to his suicide. In “Punch Drunk Love,” the Adam Sandler character’s entire existence of one of humiliation by his family; he is “punch drunk” by it. “There Will Be Blood’s” most famous scene, the “I drink your milkshake” scene, is of the Daniel Day Lewis character humiliating the other man. These scenes are a representative sample of Anderson’s preoccupation with one character humiliating another but are no means a catalog of them. The scenes in which a humiliating event does not occur are either the lesser scenes or of transitional events that lead to the next humiliating confrontation. There is no question that humiliation is powerful. Most persons have felt its sting at one time or another, and those humiliations, whether public or private, leave memories that cannot be eradicated. Scenes of them strike a deeply personal chord and therefore connect with the viewer, but they are cheap, like sex, violence or fart jokes. A well-placed scene of violence (or a well-paced fart joke, for that matter,) can add dimension to a movie that is not relentlessly violent (or flatulent.) A movie that is nothing but violence, however, is just torture porn. Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies are humiliation porn. His technical mastery of the cinematic medium can mask this, like perfume can mask body odor. His scenes are beautifully composed and he elicits superb performances from his actors. His mise en scene is impeccable and his cinematography (or choice of cinematographers) is above reproach. But greatness in movies encompasses more than just technical skill. Technical professionalism is a given in top-notch movies; it is simply the tool with which a great movie is built. The tool, though, is not the product. Look at the spectrum of movies that are considered great and we find that humiliation occurs infrequently and as a character’s climactic comeuppance when it is employed. Movies as diverse as “M,” “The Treasure of The Sierra Madre,” “Jaws,” “Casablanca,” “The Godfather” and hundreds of others achieved their greatness through elements other than humiliation, yet Paul Thomas Anderson cannot achieve power without it. He therefore must be seen as a director of limited means. A director whose signal accomplishment is to engender discomfiture in the audience does not invite repeated viewings and cannot, on that basis, join the pantheon of immortals.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 11:29 a.m. CST

    Sutureself: give me a break

    by seagrass

    "Humiliation porn"? Lay off the drugs, man. If you really think that, you've COMPLETELY missed the point of all of his films. Wow. That might be the most ignorant and pretentious post I've ever seen on AICN.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 11:34 a.m. CST

    Maybe i overlooked it...

    by Jeremy

    ..but i haven't seen anything on the site yet about Clint Eastwood lobbying to direct Expendables 3.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 11:54 a.m. CST

    PTA is overrated

    by SergeantStedenko

    Don't get me wrong, he is certainly a proficient director, but he is not the best director working today, he is not a visionary creative genius and he is not even close, as someone suggested in a previous talkback, to being a better director than Kubrick. That is the height of hyperbole. Certainly, PTA does have his blind worshippers, just as Nolan does, who will most likely flame me to the depths of hell for even suggesting that their film god is not the best thing since pink tacos, but if you examine the body of his work with an honest eye you too will agree that Anderson, while infinitely better than the other two Andersons, is in actuality an Emperor with very little clothes on, perhaps merely that uni-thong that Sasha Baron Cohen wore in Borat. Boogie Nights- well-made but contrived; it's Anderson's idea of what he thinks the porn industry is like without, so it seems, doing much research into the subject Magnolia- boy what a load of pretentious drivel full of miserable characters I could care less about; many love the contrived ending with the frogs falling out of the sky as if this somehow ties together all the crap that preceded it wrapping it all up with a big bow that is supposed to have some deep meaning; and don't get me started on the Ally McBeal every character singing the same song moment Punch Drunk Love- Adam Sandler There Will Be Blood- the best of the bunch, but Anderson's hatred for Religion and Capitalism muddles a film that had huge potential to make a profound statement on the American Dream; Daniel Day Lewis performance is certainly riveting, but it is also one of the biggest example of overacting in recent cinema, so much so that it actually harkens back to early film acting before naturalism, thankfully, became the norm; the ending feels tacked on and the bludgeoning death of the preacher gives us insight into what Anderson hates more, religion or capitaism The Master- haven't seen it yet, but it does not surprise me that it is getting mixed reviews, perhaps people are on to PTA's pretentious B.S.

  • What's his deal anyway? Did Ghoulardi molest him?

  • They tend to find the thematic scope of the movie too broad and the focus on these two characters too narrow.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 3:13 p.m. CST

    Oh My Dear Lord....

    by DougMcKenzie

    This is a horribly written review. "This still is a very quality picture"? Sorry, but I just imagined Ralph Wiggum saying that....

  • The problem with that though is that THE MASTER tries to do too much at one time...

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 4:50 p.m. CST

    I read "The Kidd vs. The Manster."

    by Gojira_X

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 8:19 p.m. CST

    sutureself

    by Kevin Spellman

    What you have just written is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever read. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this thread is now dumber for having read it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 8:51 p.m. CST

    sergeantstedenko - so wrong on so many points

    by Kevin Spellman

    he is not the best director working today

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 8:52 p.m. CST

    Join the 21st fucking century, Jesus Christ.

    by Kevin Spellman

  • Sept. 21, 2012, 9:07 p.m. CST

    anyway, sergeantstedenko, "best" is subjective.

    by Kevin Spellman

    But any film geek with a brain and without a bias would look at his body of work and say his name deserves to be in the same conversation with the likes of Scorsese, Fincher, Aronofsky, Russell, the Coen Brothers, Malick, etc. As for Boogie Nights, maybe YOU should do some research before just posting about something you clearly know very little about. PTA was born and raised in San Fernando Valley, and even a brief skimming of the IMDb page would show you that he did extensive research on John Holmes, that Dirk Diggler is very much inspired by Holmes, that Amber Waves' custody problems is inspired by another real life porn star Veronica Hart, and that the robbery scene was inspired by the Wonderland murders that Holmes himself was involved in. Magnolia - Yes, they are all "miserable" characters. That's kind of the whole point of the film. If you can't enjoy a film because its characters have emotional problems....well maybe you should stop watching character-driven movies. And if you didn't like the frog scene then you clearly didn't understand it fully. You've got all these "miserable" characters, stuck in a rut, not trying to better their lives in anyway or willing to accept who they are. And in spite of that, the world, the universe, continues on. And things will continue to happen, seemingly randomly, that will have an impact on your life, be it positively or negatively. Stanley, the only child in the main cast and therefore the only one with enough innocence and naivete to understand, says it best when he looks out the window at the raining frogs and smiles and says "This is something that happens". Because it is. And the characters singing "Wise Up", that was just a nice break from the drama and a scene prefacing the thematic points being made in the raining frogs scene. Honestly, I don't understand how an intelligent, empathetic person can view that scene and not be moved, and not be a jaded prick. Punch Drunk Love- Adam Sander....gives the best performance of his career, of the film, and earned a Golden Globe nomination (not saying much I know). Sorry, just had to finish your sentence for you. But if you read any professional review of this film, even a negative one, I guarantee you that Sandler's performance was praised. You're alone on this one buddy. Funny how you fail to mention the film itself, which is sweet, sad, funny, heart-wrenching, believably human and perfectly understated. There Will Be Blood - Okay, I officially think you're a complete idiot now. Daniel-Day Lewis was overacting? Please. Were there moments of scenery-chewing and over the top acting? Sure. Some of that is necessary when you're creating a larger than life character. But go back and watch the scene between Daniel and his "brother", the scene where Daniel gets a bit confessional and says "I have a competition in me, I hate most people" etc. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28BXqQWqYJU Watch that scene and tell me his performance isn't beautifully subtle and at the same time commanding. His eyes alone give a great performance in that scene, but when you factor in his body language and his voicings...forget it. As for his "hatred of religion and capitalism", that's YOUR interpretation of this movie. Problem is, you provided ZERO examples of any of this, which means I have to call bullshit on your opinion. Is he examining the effects of religious fundamentalism and greed-driven entrepreneurship on society? Absolutely. And while it does depict Daniel Plainview's descent into loneliness & madness as a result of his insatiable greed, and it is revealed that Eli Sunday is a man of questionable faith who manipulates and takes advantages of his congregations beliefs for his own personal gain, that does not make the whole film a condemnation. That's just PTA seeing corruption taking place in movements such as Scientology and Christian mega churches and just calling a spade a spade. I haven't seen the Master, but I have high expectations. Also, it's funny how you hate on PTA but fail to mention his worst film, Hard Eight, or Sydney. It's a fine first film, but it lacks the visual flair of his later films, there's not much interesting going on thematically, and it has John C. Reilly giving probably the worst performance of his career, that I've seen anyway.

  • He is without question a great filmmaker and Boogie Nights and Magnolia and There Will Be Blood are absolutely amazing classics of their era and genre they are representing. If you think they are not then you are a stupid fuck that does not know jack fuck about quality movies. You seriously need to eat a bowl of your own shit and shut the fuck up forever because the universe hates you.

  • Sept. 22, 2012, 3:30 a.m. CST

    Longer comments are getting cut off and/or deleted...

    by Badltnt310

    I'm having the same problem as kevinps. It only posts the first few sentences of my comments, but the rest disappear somehow. Must be a bug on the site.

  • Sept. 22, 2012, 12:15 p.m. CST

    The kid vs. the english language

    by RedJester

    Now, that would be an entertaining yet not exactly fair fight!

  • Sept. 22, 2012, 4:12 p.m. CST

    deaft0ne

    by MovieDeal

    I was going to give a detailed and long rebuttal against the deriders of this film or the other films of PTA. But, your comments summed them up quite succinctly. Thank you.