Despite the best efforts of your own personal guru, and even with hours of careful and intensive processing, you still can’t manage to get Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” out of your head. I don’t blame you — and I’m with you. Even here at Fantastic Fest, where I’ve been seeing three or more films a day for nearly a week, I’m still puzzling over Anderson’s latest opus and its myriad meanings. Whenever a new review gets posted on Twitter I immediately devour it, like a starving man who’s been subsisting on nothing but a strange bootleg liquor concocted out of aspirin pills and darkroom chemicals.
For all my fellow “Master” acolytes: this post is for you, a collection of the ten best “The Master” reviews and analyses published online so far. They don’t contain all the answers. But they do contain some.
The Best “The Master” Reviews So Far
“If the processing/auditing that the Master encourages is designed to shed oneself of the negative emotions and troubles of our past lives, consider the possibility that Freddie might actually be, at least on a metaphoric level, one of Lancaster Dodd’s past lives. (Which makes the oft-stated question in the film of where they might have met a more haunting one.) If Dodd constantly leaves his troubles behind, Freddie appears to be made up entirely of troubles — the family that abandoned him, the girl back home who didn’t wait for him, the war that broke him… Like the negative energy of New Yorkers that collects in the sewers of the city in ‘Ghostbusters II,’ Freddie is, in many ways, the return of the repressed for Lancaster Dodd — a Frankenstein’s Monster of troubled memories, rejections, and unspoken spiritual longings.”
“It’s interesting to note that the man who finally causes Freddie to explode, during his time as a department store portrait photographer, turns out to resemble Dodd. He’s first presented as an off-screen voice, a happily married man, and something about him — perhaps the picture-perfect scenario, in Freddie’s mind, of a man getting his photograph taken for his wife to frame and keep on her dresser in their bedroom — absolutely infuriates the photographer. Freddie attempts to pose the poor fellow so that he is nearly burned by the lamps. When we finally see him, sitting on his pedestal with lights trained on him, he looks very much like Dodd, though Freddie hasn’t yet met Master. Later, when he does, Dodd immediately senses something familiar in him and insists that they have met — possibly in a previous life. That’s the focus of The Cause: helping people let go of the burdens of their past lives and restore them to their pristine, natural state of ‘perfection.'”
“This entire discussion of aspect ratios and the like involves the capture of the film’s images. There are unique optical properties to capturing on wide format negative that 35mm simply cannot do in quite the same way. A 35mm 1.85 shot and a 1.85 shot from 70mm look different. They exhibit different levels of grain, the lens kits are different, the way that focal length and depth of field can be maintained is different, and so on. Part of what makes the film so remarkable are the extremely tight shots of faces, the features of the protagonists dancing in an out of an extremely tight focal range, with the depth of field falling off to bokeh in a super pleasing way. This is the unique advantage of shooting on 70mm, being afforded an entirely different kit by which to capture some of these stunning images.”
“You could say that ‘The Master’ picks up where ‘There Will Be Blood’ leaves off. By the Forties, long after the great religious revivals and reforms, after the land has been tamed and settled, the railroads and cities built, the gold mined, the oceans of oil tapped and the fortunes of the Carnegies and Dohenys and Vanderbilts made and ensconced in legend, a mounting standardization, desperation, and rancidness has set in, and another war has left men shattered. The only conceivable frontier is within: the liberation of the self from routines, possessions, and habits of mind, whether they’ve been inculcated by trauma or affluence.”
“It’s fair to see in all of this the origins of a system of belief like Scientology. But the Cause, with its group sessions and personality exercises and retreats into past memories to enhance the present, also strikes me as a stand-in for a different school of belief, for the belief moviegoers place in acting and characters. During that foyer scene, I watched the acolytes watching Freddie, and it reminded me of photos of earnest students watching exercises at the Actors Studio. By the late 1940s and 1950s, Lee Strasberg and the Method had begun to change the way we saw movie acting. It gave the movies a heightened dimension of realism, relying on past memories, ideas of emotional release and control to get a truer, purer performance.”
“He has never made a western — ‘Punch-Drunk Love,’ a tale of righteous revenge starring Adam Sandler, probably comes closest — but all of Mr. Anderson’s six feature films to date are at least partially meditations on the American West. ‘Hard Eight’ takes place in Reno; ‘Boogie Nights,’ ‘Magnolia’ and ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ in the San Fernando Valley; and ‘There Will be Blood’ in the oil fields of Southern California. ‘The Master’ travels east — to New York, Philadelphia and England — but its geographic touchstones are the Pacific Ocean and the Arizona desert.”
“Some films have subtle overtones; ‘The Master’ is a cacophony of slight glimpses and echoes that requires time to process. At every turn, you’re first forced to question and reconsider how the surface action links to the broader strokes. The more I worked over the story, the more I recognized the elements of a tragedy. By the end of the film, we realize that Freddie is a man drowning in regret. When he hops on the motorcycle, and is given the keys to his freedom, he finally follows Peggy’s advice and imagines something in front of him — a goal with which he can move forward. But by the time he arrives at the house of his old sweetheart, in hopes of forging that reunion he has long thought about, Freddie realizes that he’s far too late. It took too long. She’s gone.”
“Only on a third viewing did it occur to me that the naked singalong might also be read as unfolding in the mind of Peggy Dodd, who’s one of the nude clappers on view, albeit modestly shielded by the arm of her chair. To the extent that there’s any dramatic action in this scene, it unfolds not between Master and the pretty young women he teases and tickles, but between the silent Peggy, seen only in the background of a wide shot that includes her husband and all the other partiers, and Freddie, whom we see only in intermittent medium close-ups, alone in the frame — a disconnected outsider whose spatial relation to the action remains unclear. As the revelry unfolds, Peggy fixes the out-of-frame spot we assume Freddie must occupy with a baleful, indeterminate glare and is herself eventually blocked from view by the bobbing, dancing bodies of the women surrounding her. Is it possible that the vision of Master surrounded by roomful of naked temptresses is a paranoid fantasy on the part of the fiercely protective Peggy (who in the very next scene will assert her sexual authority over her husband in what I can only pray will be this year’s most hostile on-screen handjob)?”
“‘The Master’ extends a tradition of Anderson films about fathers and sons, whether of the real or surrogate variety: Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly in’Hard Eight,’ Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg in ‘Boogie Nights,’ Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano in ‘There Will Be Blood.’ Phoenix comes to Hoffman as the wayward child, looking for guidance, but the neediness isn’t entirely limited to him — while Anderson nails the way spiritual frauds can abuse the faith of their followers, there are times when their roles shift and the power of the father is transferred. Given parts that draw on a full range of emotion, Phoenix and Hoffman are equally superb as seekers who both find what they need in each other and expose the emptiness and hurt at their core.”
“Part New Hollywood revival, part contemporary art filmmaking / ‘slow cinema’ exercise, ‘The Master’ is one of the most difficult films made by a household-name American director in some time; it begins quick and exhilarating, and ends slow and poky. Still, it’d be a mistake to call the movie a noble failure. ‘The Master’ sets out to do some risky things: it deals with an organization that purports to mend all problems (and cure ‘certain types of leukemia’) and refuses to offer anything like a neat ending; it presents two flawed characters — a peripatetic, priapic fuck-up and a charlatan — and refuses to judge them; and it very nearly makes Dodd into a tragic figure, a pathetic quasi-despot who is neither as smart nor as cool as he believes himself to be, and who needs followers to feel validated (after all, if he can’t master a simpleton like Freddie, what kind of Master can he be?). It’s admirable — though ‘admirable’ doesn’t mean ‘great.’ However, there’s at least an hour of a masterpiece in there.”
What’s your favorite review of ‘The Master?’ Leave a link in the comments below.