The Master (2012)

the master poster

Let’s face it, when going head to head with Daniel Day Lewis, playing one of America’s most loved figureheads; you clearly have your work cut out.

Award success didn’t come Joaquin Phoenix’s way this year but in any other year perhaps it might have.

What is more certain, here portraying naval veteran Freddie Quell, is that it’s very unlikely you will ever see a more disturbing and balanced portrayal of poor mental health and alcoholism.

Phoenix’s performance procures every emotion, uncomfortable to watch in awkward social interactions, pitifully childlike and unpredictable.  The inebriated highs are few and the lows are constant. Freddie’s shoulder shrugging, hands on hips mannerisms are permanent, so too his crevassed face, slurred speech and glassy eyed abandon – the enduring damage caused by alcohol, not just the temporary effects of inebriation. He is a lost soul, discharged with post-traumatic stress, a prime candidate for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Cause.


The would be master, a charismatic learned man takes Freddie as his project through processing and task repetition to cure mental and physical illness through recovering memories of past selves.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s much remarked examination of scientology then? Not quite as explicit as that, the man himself has cited numerous cult origins in America that too would be worthy of celluloid scrutiny. This Cause being a cult comparable to many a post war new world religion that assimilates and guides those in need or a deceiving front for extortion, oddball ideals or something else?

Slightly taking the underdog position here, but tempering this; Anderson is an exceptional filmmaker and every one of his movies so far have been extraordinary. There Will Be Blood is one of the greatest films of any era, by any director.

Just like the shadow of DDL’s Lincoln on the unfortunate Phoenix, and in degrees of separation, Anderson’s last masterpiece looms large too.

Anderson has not quite achieved the same greatness here, even with immense technical skill, beauty and yet another shattering central act, an eye the man acutely has for placing performance and character at the heart of everything.

Often opaque and vague, The Master is forgiven for its ambiguity as it’s the expectation and true form of a remarkable director. The only clear intention that Anderson ever demonstrates is that he always leaves verdict to the beholder; this always gains him and here The Master; credit, no matter how equivocal the narrative may be. There is no doubt that it is exceptional filmmaking to allow performance to thrive, beauty to be captured and enlightenment to be self-discovered.

The Master

This then is Anderson at his most impressionistic? And in turn his most difficult piece and a struggle in the latter stages; this time discovering that enlightenment is challenging, just as it is for Freddie.

Intriguing in the introduction, seeing Freddie most pitifully move from job to job with backstory piecing together where it started to go wrong, but once seeing that Freddie is beyond repair and Hoffman’s veneer of mastery begins to crack, The Master struggles to regain its early majesty with ever increasing uncertainty. Striking though it is, those hypnotic visuals start to feel immaterial no matter how consistently beautiful; this is Anderson more than ever on his own terms, and for once it suffers as repetition sets in.

Though it is as sumptuously beautiful as what can be expected from a craftsman who has likely never framed a shot as good as here, even without long collaborating DOP Robert Elswit. A level of beauty often only reserved for Malick; but being more beautiful than ever with flawless acting doesn’t do enough to quite create another five star masterpiece for one of the great directors of his generation.

Immense acting, most brilliantly delivered by Phoenix provides yet another PTA hallmark of allowing the stage to class performers; in Hoffman’s and Phoenix’s shared initial ‘processing’ scene you will never likely see a more captivating collaboration of supreme acting.

But Hoffman mostly gives way to the more central performance of Phoenix, a showman and perhaps only the figurehead for the front. Amy Adams’ privately domineering wife is perhaps the true master of proceedings, omnipresent and perhaps more; a point that’s left open to interpretation.

Hoffman’s awkward melody for Anderson’s would be climax, offering some reasoning for his persistence in the project that is Freddie feels like an ostentatious rather than novel way of revealing latent feelings deemed inappropriate for this or any other time of extreme prejudice, whether in this life or another.Amy Adams the master

A musing recollection of a past life serves to possibly affirm the cosmic theories preached throughout and is the clearest attempt at illuminating, whether relying on belief or reality it’s a pseudo explanation.

Anderson’s final third unravels ambiguously – not unusual, in past films this has been accepted as being respectful to the audience when being intelligently aware of the message he is making, but without the crescendo of a finale seen in previous that has delivered enough on investment, too many threads are left untied or open to speculation and debate.

Should any film ever require multiple views to reach a finale that settles very little, if anything? No matter how many re-views, The Master will likely never deliver a conclusion. Depending on the point of view that could be deemed as frustrating opacity or the genius of a visionary filmmaker; Anderson is certainly that.

Supreme acting, glorious cinematography with themes too big to comprehend, even in Anderson’s world, The Master is completely enigmatic and at times totally wonderful.

What exactly The Master is about is open to theorising and conjecture (google: The Master theory) and who ‘The Master’ is remains tantalisingly unresolved. Is that the greatest credit or criticism that can be made of yet another, undeniably thought-provoking Anderson film event?

Recommended, as you will never likely see a film quite like it.

(Blu Ray)

new 4 star

41 responses to “The Master (2012)

  1. Nice review. PTA is one of my favorite directors, and The Master was my favorite movie of 2012. Really amazing film and I wish Joaquin Phoenix received some more attention from award shows for his role.

    • Thank you, tough one to review and I still can’t conclude on what it all meant. My most favourite thought provoking film of 2012 for sure ,and will likely try to figure it for a long time to come!

  2. Nicely done sir. A much misunderstood film… as much as it can ever be understood! I think that PTA will end up going down as one of THE great directors of our time.

    For me Phoenix’s performance was better than that of DDL in Lincoln but I’ve never been one for trying to understand the judging of art for awards.

    • hooray, now I can say it! Phoenix performance should have won for me, thank you for allowing me the courage of my convictions! 😉 I love DDL but it didn’t do it for me TBH. Indeed, a totally misunderstood film – still!

  3. Fantastic review here man. You really capture everything about this film. I was forgiving of it’s ambiguity and consider it a near masterpiece despite not fully understanding it. The Rorschach element to story has a big part to play though. Like that test the whole film is open to interpretation and always will be. There is no definitive answer from a rorschach and none will be found in The Master. It always dares to question what you are believing is actually happening or if it’s all in the disturbed mind of Freddie. That’s what makes it one of Anderson’s finest achievements. I absolutely loved it.
    I haven’t seen DDL in Lincoln and as much as he’s one of my favourite actors I can’t see how anyone can be better than Phoenix here. Simply outstanding he was.

    • Nice one Mark, I knew you would call in on this one. Glad you liked the review; much like the movie this review was hard! I couldn’t find enough to give it 5 but it got close. I too forgave a lot of it but I wanted something, that’s just preference. Normally, being a deep thinker on stuff like this, I’m happy to be left hanging, but it took ambiguity to new heights. Soooo many theories and interpretations, Freddie might be The Master, I was thinking he was Jesus or something at one point! Have you googled The Master theory, some much stuff out there.
      Phoenix should have won, for me!

      • Yeah, I’m not sure what went on there but it was shocking. Maybe you’re right. Maybe they don’t know how to deal with films like this.

      • They don’t, if it lacks a plot or a conclusion it bombs! Argo looks very safe as a winner for them now, which was good – but safe!

  4. Great review Kevin! I missed this on the big screen but I’ll rent it on account of Phoenix and Hoffman’s performances. Glad Phoenix was nominated even though he blatantly scorn at award stuff (though he still attend the ceremony, ahah).

  5. Nice review. I initially walked out unsure what to make of it, even if it was a technical marvel, but it’s one of those movies that really does stick with you, and I think a lot of that does have to do with so much of the uncertainty that was on display. And the more time passes, the more I find that I’m able to appreciate it. I really need to give it another watch at some point.

    • It certainly does stick with you for that exact reason. Well said. I have watched it three times now, I appreciate it but still haven’t made a conclusion. Thanks for the praise and the visit!

  6. Solid review. This is one that I liked but it didn’t connect with me nearly as strongly as with some. For me the performances save what is pretty minor work from PTA.

    • Thanks Keith, was very hard to connect with and that is the biggest criticism it received. At first I hated it, really, felt robbed, but two views later I appreciate it, but probably could never fully like it.

  7. Nice review Kevin, I did not even know where to start after I watched this. In fact I still have not managed to write a review. Certainly, one of those films that you are tossing around in your mind for days after viewing.

    • still am…took me about two days, back and forth to get a start on it, watched it weeks ago! Whether it’s a masterpiece as many critics have said, i’m not quite sure, but I certainly appreciate it. Thanks man.

  8. Beautiful-looking movie that I think was one of the more underrated pieces of cinema last year. Wasn’t perfect, but for it’s ambition: it deserved a crap load of credit. Good review.

    • misunderstood for sure, and it deserves credit for exactly that reason,ambition – my review lacked that word to describe it but it certainly was ambitious, should have been nominated. Thanks!

  9. It did suck for Phoenix that he went up against DDL for best actor. I recall when I saw this, I was thinking No one is going to have a better Oscar role than this, but… them’s the breaks I guess.

    I dont know that seubsequent rewatches would be useless, though. I have a couple of theories that I know I’d like to work out a little more… 😉

    • Think he still should have won but that film.would struggle to gain any recognition. Not saying subsequent watches would be useless, it would still throw up something new every time, just think would be difficult to ever decide on one conclusion. I have about ten theories in my head right now still and I have watched it three times 😉

  10. I feel that this is, like ‘Skyfall,’ another one of those much loved films of 2012 that perhaps I just did not “get.” The acting was impressive, yes, but neither Hoffman’s nor Phoenix’s character I found particularly relatable or likable (or interesting) by any stretch. And simply put, I never felt like the story went anywhere or made me feel invested in what was going on. Nothing that occurred in this whole film struck me as truly exceptional as far as story or character development is concerned, and since this is a character-driven narrative, that matters.

    I understand PTA’s appeal, and that he has considerable writing and directing skill, but quite honestly, I’ve never been floored by any of his films, save for maybe ‘There Will be Blood.’ I feel that, like many actors and film-makers whose area of expertise lies within the genre of drama, the man gets far more praise than he deserves.

    With that said, he’s no Helen Mirren 😉

    • Not everyone is a fan that’s for sure. It took me three watches to enjoy it and if it wasn’t PTA I may not have given it that chance being honest. I think we respectfully disagree but I fully understand how it’s a turn off for many. I persisted beyond where I normally would a got a lot more out of it. I liked Freddie and I think he does develop but it does get to a point in the end that is pretty much where it started, but that yet another theory, there are many. There will be blood was exceptional and critically his films are loved, but that’s not to say they’re for everyone. I enjoyed it (in the end) and like the man himself you either love it or hate. Helen Mirren always rocks!

    • yep, this more than any film requires you to have very much your own opinion, simply because no one is right AND it’s widely open to interpretation. I would defo recommend and don’t trust anyone else’s view on it because basically, i doubt anyone knows for sure.

    • Thanks Brandon. I still don’t fully understand it, I can’t see anyone ever doing so either. One of the best of 2012, scared Oscar to death though!

  11. I found the movie to be average. I think Anderson makes artsy movies now without much thinking – he wants the audience to feel, but his movies are not engaging. The story here was a mess. I really liked the acting, Phoenix was good but I was much more impressed with Adams and Hoffman.

    • I wouldn’t totally agree that it was average. In terms of engagement it depends on the level of engagement desired from the viewer. His movies are not strictly ‘entertaining’ for sure but they are absolutely thought provoking. I have rarely seen a movie like The Master, its often vague and extremely challenging, challenging in the questions is poses not just the subjects but to the audience to think laterally, this is nothing new for Thomas Anderson. The Master was an experience. Regarding Phoenix, I thought it was an exceptional performance. Thanks Sati.

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