Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: There Will Be Boredom

Don't believe the hype that this is a Scientology exposé. The director of 'There Will Be Blood' is just replaying his old father-son fixation, with indifferent results

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The Weinstein Company

It’s not a stretch to say that Saturday evening’s world premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master at the Venice Film Festival is the year’s most avidly anticipated movie event. Admirers of Anderson’s last feature, There Will Be Blood, who are loud and legion, have been waiting five years for his next masterpiece. The Master’s ostensible subject — L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology — has also piqued controversy among members and outsiders alike. They too are waiting for Anderson’s fearless denunciation.

(MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage of the Venice Film Festival)

Both groups can stop waiting. The Master is neither a masterpiece nor, exactly, a Hubbard exposé. It’s an overlong (2 hr. 17 min.) study of a drifter in postwar America who joins the retinue of a charismatic spieler with similarities to Hubbard and to other high-octane peddlers of the good life. And while the movie (the first to be shot in 70 mm since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet 16 years ago) is glorious to watch, it brings no coherence or insight to its two main characters: the wastrel Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) or the shaman-showman Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

(MORE: Richard Schickel’s Review of There Will Be Blood)

The son of a man who died from drink and a woman in an insane asylum, Freddie has every reason to be sociopathic and takes every excuse to put his illness into action. With a “nervous breakdown” discharge from the Navy after World War II service, he tangles with psychiatrists, gets a job as a portrait photographer in a department store and picks a fight with a customer, becomes a migrant worker and poisons a fellow picker with the liquor he brews; its secret ingredient is paint thinner. On the run in 1950, he stows away on the Alethia (Greek for “truth” or “disclosure”), a private ship headed from San Francisco to Panama, and is befriended by the “captain,” Dodd, who has hatched a self-help scheme called the Cause. The older man is fascinated by Freddie’s troubled makeup and invigorated by his potent hooch. With disarming candor, Dodd tells Freddie, “You’ll be my guinea pig and protégé.”

Describing himself as “a scientist, a connoisseur … a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher but, above all else, a hopelessly inquisitive man,” Dodd bubbles with jolly confidence, not satanic power; in Hoffman’s lovely impersonation, he is less Old Nick than Saint Nick. He gives potent secular sermons about “taming the dragon” and, in the film’s greatest scene, quizzes Freddie on his crimes and insecurities: “Did you ever kill anyone? Did you have sex with a member of your family? Does it bother you how inconsequential you are?” Dodd and his wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams) claim that their “process of dehypnotization” takes the subject “back beyond to the prebirth era,” that they “record everything through all lifetimes … trillions of years ago” and that hypnosis therapy can cure cancer and speed the world to peace.

(MORE: Vanessa Redgrave on Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2006 TIME 100)

All this is a light fictionalizing of Scientology precepts in its Dianetics stage in the 1950s, when Hubbard proposed that childhood traumas began not at the age of 2 or 3 but in the womb, when the fetus received hostile “engrams” from its mother’s moods and movements. Some of Dodd’s biography resembles Hubbard’s. A prolific author of pulp fiction, he saw himself as the adventure hero he put in his books, and he had the personality to convince others of his stature. At any meeting of fantasy writers, he was not the greatest talent but the largest presence. He used that charisma, more than any psychological acuity, to sell Scientology.

But the movie is no Citizen Hubbard; it’s just not that interested in Dodd’s religion or scam, except as it relates to Freddie. Another difference: Mary Sue is as invested in the Cause and nearly as mesmerizing as her husband. Standing close to Freddie, she asks, “What color are my eyes?” and when he answers green, tells him, “Turn them blue.” Their son Val (Jesse Plemons) warns Freddie, “He’s making this all up as he goes along,” but the new apostle doesn’t want to believe it; he’s just happy to be with a father figure that doesn’t want him thrown in jail.

(MORE: TIME’s 1991 Cover Story on Scientology)

This is Anderson’s sixth feature; except for the Adam Sandler project Punch-Drunk Love, each of the writer-director’s films examines father-son or mentor-acolyte relationships. Philip Baker Hall schooled John C. Reilly as a Vegas gambler in Hard Eight; porn auteur Burt Reynolds promoted well-hung amateur Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights; TV mogul Jason Robards tried reconnecting with his sex-guru son Tom Cruise in Magnolia; and oil baron Daniel Day-Lewis battled preacher Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. Nothing wrong with filmmakers pursuing themes throughout their works; it’s a mark of personal commitment in an industry that distrusts individual identity.

(MORE: Review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia)

The problem with The Master is that it doesn’t extend or expand Anderson’s artistic journey. Indeed, the movie violates a cardinal rule of the father-son or master-servant plot: that the acolyte will somehow change his mentor — will either fulfill his mission (in, say, a zillion buddy-cop movies) or overthrow him (your Oedipus, your Luke Skywalker). Freddie is briefly Dodd’s guinea pig, never his protégé. He would rather be Dodd’s enforcer: he beats up a skeptic and picks a fight with cops, neither of which the Master ordered or profits from. Freddie is not even Dodd’s Frankenstein monster — more his oafish servant, Igor, right down to the stooped posture (possibly a symptom of Freddie’s alcoholism). 

After There Will Be Blood, which Anderson loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil, some folks suspected that The Master would springboard from Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 novel Elmer Gantry, the story of a drifter — Burt Lancaster, in the smart and zesty 1960 movie version — who enriches the ministry of the Bible-thumping Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and becomes a popular preacher on his own. No such luck. Freddie does not pick up any of Dodd’s tricks, let alone channel the Master’s powers of salesmanship and seduction; and the Cause neither flourishes nor contracts because of Freddie. When his irrelevance to Dodd’s mission becomes obvious, after about an hour, the story flatlines into repetition without development. Freddie is there, then he’s gone, leaving little significant impact on the movement or the movie.

(MORE: Corliss’s Tribute to Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry)

Apparently determined to rewrite 2,500 years of dramatic literature, Anderson ignores another cardinal tenet: that a character’s early preoccupations will bear verdant or evil fruit later in the story. Freddie’s obsession is sex. On a Pacific beach, he humps the figure of a woman that other sailors have sculpted in the sand; given a Rorschach test, he identifies every image as male or female genitalia; in his job as portrait photographer, he has a quickie in his lab with another employee. Yet when Freddie enters the Cause, apart from a crudely drawn invitation to sex early on, he sparks little sexual mischief, even ignoring a woman’s hand as it tip-fingers toward his crotch. Either the satyr has been neutered or Anderson lost track of what the first part of The Master was about.

That opening 20 minutes or so sings and stings with promise. The first image, a shot of the churning blue ocean seen from the stern of a Navy ship, portends a God’s-eye view of human fallibility. (Top marks to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., on loan to Anderson from Francis Coppola’s recent indie efforts, and to production designers Jack Fisk and David Crank.) The faces of Freddie’s photo subjects have late-1940s veracity — wonderful casting, couture and coiffure. And in a magnificent pair of tracking shots, Freddie jumps onto the Alethia as it sails under the Golden Gate Bridge into the sunset. Phoenix, back in movies after a four-year layoff and his bizarro performance-art impersonation of a deranged rap artist in the faux doc I’m Still Here, makes Freddie’s misadventures after his Naval service rancid but rewarding. This early section cues viewers that they will be spending a long time in the company of a severely disturbed character who gets into fascinating scrapes with attractive people.

But the fascination wears off just as it should be peaking, with his involvement in the Cause. The two men bicker and, because even an art film needs an action scene, test themselves in a motorcycle contest. Finally, a bit too late in the proceedings, Dodd apostrophizes, “What a horrible young man you are!” Moviegoers may agree: The Master expends all its considerable skill on a portrait of the wrong man — a creature not worth Dodd’s time, or ours.

30 comments
Bobsmuse
Bobsmuse

I saw this film Sunday at the Arc Light/ Cinerama  Dome in Hollywood, Corliss was spot on. The room was packed and only two  people  clapped at the end. The rest of us sat in stunned silence. You could hear a collective "What was that?!!" The acting in this film is superb but the story is an  incomplete, confusing mess. You know no more about these two men at the end of the film as you did at the beginning. I loved "There Will Be Blood." This film doesn't even come close.

zanetearth
zanetearth

Thank you for the only honest review I've read.  This movie was pointless. It wasn't profound.  There was no plot.  There were no insights.  The dialogue was lackluster.  The characters were one-dimensional.  It was overwrought and contrived. I agree with the entire review: the rhythmic opening scenes; the jarring sand; the churning water, the shot of the boat drifting off into the sunset; the riveting rapid-fire interrogation---those were the film's finest moments.  I don't understand the fascination with Paul Thomas Anderson.  I was bored after the first hour and felt like I was sitting through an elaborate prank.  Has the world gone mad to think there's hidden depth in a period drama about a dull alcoholic?  Your thoughtful review is a bright star among the hero-worshipping acolytes in all the other major news outlets.  (I guess even film critics need a "master.")

johninlosangeles
johninlosangeles

This reviewer's problem with a plateauing or  flatlining of character development misses the larger points of the movie. The reviewer shows his limited understanding and closed-mindedness regarding the film and cinema as a whole by writing about 'cardinal' rules in movies. If this movie does nothing to 'extend of expand Anderson’s artistic journey,' how would the reviewer explain the film and the director's disregard for such 'cardinal' rules? To pose a larger question:  what would cinema be if writers, directors, producers, and actors all decided NOT to break so-called sacred and unbreakable rules? 

It is not a new or unique statement to say that people do not change, that they basically  are who they are. "The Master" gives hints of resolution for the two primary characters, but does not simply hand the viewer a palatable, easy-to-digest resolution. Freddie and Dodd find some kind of meaning in each other, but why do viewers expect that they should change each other? Anyone going into this film (this reviewer included) expecting that should stick to the glossy, brain-dead, romantic comedies that come out every weekend. 

Heartmovies
Heartmovies

 Perhaps more people will see this important movie now that it is

associated with such a charged subject as religion.  Given these politically polarized times where many confuse

religion with issues of state, this film is a must see for dare I say it –

everyone.  Alas, due

to the “artsy”-ness of it I doubt that will happen.  I can only hope universities will adopt this movie as a

requisite class in the study of what makes a corrupt leader (be it a religious

one or any other type for that matter). 

What struck me about in this film is how similar the two main characters

Freddie (Phoenix) and Dodd (Hoffman) are. 

It is a tug of war as you mentioned – a tug of war between the almost

mirror images of the same man.  The

only differences between them are the paths their lives took.  Otherwise, each is, in his own way, lost,

damaged, psychopathic.  Freddie

(played by Phoenix) is the result of an abusive childhood and so beautifully

illustrates the tension and chaos that is created in a man’s heart when he is

damaged by such a childhood and the burden of witnessing the horrors of

war.  Dodd – equally a psychopath, corrupt,

power hungry – is in many ways – worse – having advantages in his life – he chose

to corrupt others – to control his surroundings - to take advantage of people

in order to be wealthy.  At least Freddie

is honest with who he is.  It is

important to note that at the heart of this film is the message that although

it is easy to dismiss Freddie as crazy and despicable, Dodd is the real enemy

of the people – as he is the true face of corruption – the wolf in sheep’s

clothing.   Freddie doesn’t claim to want to heal

anyone. He doesn’t claim to be something he isn’t – Dodd does – he manipulates

Freddie into being his enforcer and takes advantage of a damaged man.  The redeeming moment in the film is

when Freddie leaves and for me the most revealing moment of the Dodd character

is the look on his face (played beautifully by Hoffman) that look of fierce

rage when he realizes Freddie has left him.  The defining moment for Freddie is when he returns to Dodd

and having the chance to come back to that cushy wealthy life – he chooses not

to. How brave an act that was – he chose to be true to himself – in all his

messy lonely self.  Anderson’s film

is not great because it speaks of religion or even because it reveals the true

face of corrupted power.  It is

great because of the main character Freddie this odd damaged man, imperfect in

so many ways, is the true hero.  He

is the hero who stood up and walked away from wealth and power.  In the choice Freddie made, he inspires

in all of us the notion that no matter how imperfect we may appear or feel we

have a chance at true glory by staying true to our own beliefs.

jojo
jojo

The more I think about this film the more I believe that the character of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd are one and the same.  This explains the Master's speech before Quell leaves and the way Quell resumes his old ways but with the wind knocked out of his sails. So it may not really be father/son or evil/good that this film is about but more how the evil impulses of Quell empowered the Master to the point where Quell's drive was severely diminished and to the point that he could not even maintain an erection. 

The film was not at all boring. I was captivated with it from the beginning to the end.  

Another way to look at it is that it was more like the story of Sampson and Delilah.  Quell was Sampson who's strength lie in his sexual conquests and Dodd as Delilah who killed the sexual urges through the hypnotic processes he ran on Quell. 

Just a thought.

Carl James Moores
Carl James Moores

Corliss is a hack who trolls acclaimed movies for web hits.

Also, in reading this review I realize he has NO insight into theme in film.

Film Critic who knows f-all abput film. Nice work if you can get it I suppose.

Carl James Moores
Carl James Moores

Mr. Corliss makes a career out of negative voting films that better reviewers than him praise.

Shitting on things that are better than you could ever accomplish must be good work if you can get it.

As well, I think you may have Daddy/ Mentor issue's based on the psyche of your review.

Massimo C. Fabio
Massimo C. Fabio

Great review Mr. Corliss. So basically the movie had potential but falls very flat. I had plans to see it when it opened but now i know to stay away, thanks. Gotta say i loved the title to this review. "There will be Boredom" ahaha, very creative and hilarious at the same time.

Marco Chaudry
Marco Chaudry

There will be boredom.  Huh, so I guess he'd rather go and see Resident Evil 5 instead for exciting action sequences for a guy his age? XD

Derptard
Derptard

Richard Corliss, your thetans are showing.

Marco Chaudry
Marco Chaudry

Richard Corliss expects too much and needs to enjoy the best that is given to the audience and not whine about it -_-

Rich Knight
Rich Knight

 This is the same excuse people had for The Dark Knight Rises. That we expected too much. But if it doesn't meet the hype, it doesn't meet the hype. That said, I'm really looking forward to it. PTA hasn't made a bad picture. Ever.

Marco Chaudry
Marco Chaudry

Aye, I thought the TDKR was marvelous, very underrated and thoughtful conclusion film.  I have older folks who even thought it was the best in the trilogy.  But personally I felt that Batman Begins was the best because it managed to be closest tot he comics while managing that intelligent, laid back, and witty Nolan feel to it.  Including realism.  TDK was fantastic, but felt like more of a standalone political Shakespeare type film that had Batman in it.  But at the same time making Joker look like a psychopath with a crazy vision and not really a super villain, also Dent being drawn into becoming Two-Face in his failure brought from The Joker in shining light on Gotham in dark times.

Bambogli
Bambogli

PT Anderson has made it pretty clear that the movie is NOT an expose on Scientology. It has borrowed themes or has parallels to Scientology, but it's NOT about Scientology.  Looks like you are evaluating the movie constructed in your

head instead of what Anderson has made and what he is trying to say in

the movie.

JTW
JTW

Let me get this straight: your gripe with this film is that it's NOT like a zillion other movies?  It sounds to me like you went in with expectations of what the movie was supposed to be and when it didn't match up you felt betrayed and now are desperately grasping at straws. 

Talendria
Talendria

Maybe you could evaluate the movie for what it is, rather than what you wanted it to be.

You said the movie was overlong, but so was this review.

Shayan Shankar
Shayan Shankar

Well if you've come into the theatre expecting a Scientology expose than of course your going to be disappointed. 

Marco Chaudry
Marco Chaudry

Heh heh, only Tom Cruise would really really really want to see that, I don't know anyone else who would though, Scientology is just a branch of this film.  This is a drama.

MartyAB
MartyAB

I have been fortunate enough to see a pre-screening of The Master, and I can say without hesitation, Mr. Corliss should think seriously about retiring. For those who have a hunger for  quality cinema, this film is a must, and I for one will certainly be going to watch it again when it opens officially in at my local theatre.

This review is self-serving tripe.

The 1920's called, Mr. Corliss. It wants you back.

Eddie McMenamin
Eddie McMenamin

 I saw "The Master" at a surprise screening in Chicago last month. I agree with every single point in the review, specifically that at a certain point, the movie loses momentum and Anderson does nothing with the characters, story or themes in the film.

That being said, I'd like to see it again to see if there is more to unpack.

Anthony Manzi
Anthony Manzi

Interesting review, Richard.  I will have to see the film for myself before

I can fully weigh in on your critique. However, you seem to go to great lengths

to measure this film against Anderson’s previous work. This is unfair to the

reader, as well as the filmmaker. Why not review The Master as its own work, rather

than discredit it due to similarities to other films in Anderson’s canon? Are

you reviewing his arc as a filmmaker, or the film itself? You have been a good

critic for a long time. I only hope you aren’t entering your “Bosley Crowther phase,”

where your sensibilities and taste are outdated and no longer relevant. I guess

I will have to wait and see the film to know for sure.

AS
AS

Mr. Corliss has always been a pretentious and irritating shrew. I remember when he would appear on Charlie Rose back in the day and offer up his "opinions" on the holiday films. He always came off as self-important and wildly egotistical. This time, however, he's gone too far... The Master is "boring" and Hugo was a "masterpiece"? Hmm...

Marco Chaudry
Marco Chaudry

LMAO, shrew, that's a good one XD

AS
AS

Ha, yeah, I thought so too.