LINK | Posted by Robin on Monday, September 24, 2012
This weekend, Paul Thomas Anderson's (PTA, to the superfans) much hyped The Master arrived in theaters. No one was more excited than I. His previous films, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood are probably all somewhere in my top ten of all time. All time! And then, I hear PTA is making about a movie about a cult! Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman! It's like PTA made a movie specifically catered to me.
Now let me assure you of a few things before I present any criticism of the film. I don't need a movie to have a clear plotline or even have a definite resolution. In fact, I enjoy films that leave me wondering about the true meaning (I was only one who clapped, not groaned, at the last scene in Inception). I also appreciate films for being simply visual works of art. Heck, I often find myself in arguments defending Lars Von Trier movies. I like symbolism in movies, and am usually the first to appreciate something that has an interpretation of many levels.
So, no one was more surprised than I when I walked away from The Master thinking "what a hot mess." The first half of the film was incredibly engaging: we see Freddy Quell (a newly emaciated Joaquin Phoenix) released from active duty in the Navy, wandering into one menial job into the other, always having to leave because of his penchant for physical altercations. There are beautiful shots of an open field, the ocean, and a steady shot of a department store. He meets The Master, Lancaster Dodd, by chance and there is an incredible, Oscar-worthy scene of Dodd leading Freddy through an "initiation exercise" that has him reveal his true self. I had a cinema boner in that scene. I was sold. I was ready to throw an Oscar at the screen.
After that, something happened. The film lost direction. It wasn't about the Cult (called "The Cause"). It wasn't about Freddy's struggle with mental illness. Interesting plot developments were introduced but never again addressed, like Lancaster's son doubting his father's beliefs, Lancaster's newly married daughter making sexual advances to Freddy. And the most unexplored character with the most potential was Amy Adams, as Lancaster's young wife, barely the age of his daughter (a second marriage, we assume) who seems to control Lancaster, the supposed most influential man in the story. Amy Adams does well with the lines she has, but she's often relegated to sitting by Lancaster's side when he speaks.
The film wasn't even about The Cause. It wasn't about the founder. It was simply about two men who squabbled a lot and did weird things. Characters did not grow or show themselves to be someone that I should care about. Lancaster publishes a book. He opens a church. He gets arrested. But it all feels like flat exposition. Freddy does bad things, then he apologizes. But he does it again. Freddy has a lost love he wants to reunite with, but I don't care because I don't care about Freddy. And I don't care about The Master, because I don't know his motivations.
A lot of critics are talking about how the acting is good. I suppose, because Hoffman just seems to be reading lines and reading them well, because even at a base level, he's good. Joaquin lost a lot of weight, slurs his words a lot, and often looks vacant. Is that true acting, or are we just looking at a post-I'm Still Here Joaquin?
Respectable critics are falling all over themselves to praise this movie, and I am really surprised. It has an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, a score that is rarely reached. Listen, just because I didn't like it all that much, doesn't mean that all critics are wrong. I get that I am not the deciding factor for all films to be deemed good or bad (although I wish it worked that way), but anyone who enjoys film could clearly see how this is a film that would divide people. It's not going to be universally enjoyed. Then would why don't we see more critics criticizing it? Is there some sort of phenomenon of an "emperor's new clothes" thing going on here? Are critics on board because they have convinced themselves, like me, that they should like it? That the individual elements are awesome? So, therefore, it should add up to something amazing?
Dana Stevens of Slate, whose opinion I trust the most and is very gifted at making good critical arguments against good movies, has voluntarily seen this film three times already. I understand seeing new things when you watch a film, but is this a case of her desperately searching for genius? Peter Travers, who is becoming delightfully cynical in the past few years and not one to shy away from going against the majority voice of critics, claims it's the best movie of the year.
What, dear readers, are your thoughts on the film? Do you think it is getting more praise than it deserves?