Wednesday, September 26, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: The Master (2012)

On the heels of a masterpiece which propelled him to a level most filmmakers can only dream of, Paul Thomas Anderson has found himself in a bit of a lose-lose situation. It's completely unfair to compare this to There Will Be Blood let alone condense the conversation down to "but which is better?"-type hyperbole, but that's unfortunately where a lot of the discourse seems to be waddling. It was probably a smart idea to make a Scientology (or, sorry, "Scientology-like") origin movie, since that narrative was (on paper at least) destined to dominate the buzz/critique/you name it. That it doesn't quite workout that way is both testament and detriment to The Master, a deeply perplexing film on a psychological level that's easily as emotive (or more so) than anything prior in the PTA canon.

I attempted to shield myself from any reviews/assessments before going in, but it was difficult since the blogs and twitter feeds I follow tend to be outlets/people very much concerned with this movie and how exactly mindblowing it was going to be (and, naturally, their personal reaction in relation to said collective mindblowingness). I thought the complaints about pacing, which I was unable to ignore, were to be expected, and I was fully prepared for long, wordless passages that I of course would love. And while there's nothing as deep and long as Blood's lengthy, vocab-free sequences, the cinematography and score are equally as exciting. However, there is a general pacing issue that, while hard to articulate, seems to bog down the film in places. Because in moments, it's a good as anything you'll ever see. PTA pulls performances out of the three main actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams)--already as talented as anyone out there--that at times made me feel paralyzed by the emotional complexity.

This is a really weird movie, and it's probably not getting enough credit for that specific fact. I feel like I have to see it again to accurately assess/quantify this weirdness in terms of how it functions within the thematic framework overall. I have no interest in dissecting this in terms of how it relates to Scientology. It's fairly obvious that Hoffman is portraying some hybrid version of L. Ron Hubbard and [prototypical cult leader x]. The direct parallels are undeniably there, for sure; I just don't find them very interesting. Perhaps if the story was told through the eyes of The Master and not (the very much fictional) Freddie Quell (Phoenix) this wouldn't be the case, but in truth that never seems like more than a backdrop for PTA to craft yet another male relationship film. Not that the "idea of cults" isn't explored and utilized to make relevant statements about humanity; it totally is. But it's not as deftly or prominently displayed as the notion of human greed was in There Will Be Blood.

And here I find myself tying it back to Blood in every paragraph. That was not my intent but it seems pretty unavoidable in hindsight. So I might as well take the bait: is it better? No. I don't think so. It's an amazing movie, though. It stands on its own as that, and will definitely be considered among the great PTA films, if not the greatest films ever. (I'm actually really interested in how I will feel about this in 10-15 years, more so even than Blood.) Of the elite filmmakers working right now--a list you can count off on one hand, perhaps--Paul Thomas Anderson is either 1 or 2. And that we'll constantly be comparing his work to what he put out last, while unfair on many levels, is proof of this fact.

SCORE: 9 out of 10

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