The Master

wogma rating: Owner's Pride! (?) - But only for those who don’t steadfastly insist on being entertained

quick review:

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, incredibly haunting film The Master, is ideally meant for those who believe in having personal relationships with cinema; it is open to multiple readings and interpretations, and demands repeated viewings of it. There is no harm in believing cinema is meant to entertain, but I urge those who believe they love cinema to sample The Master on the big screen. You may or may not be as intrigued and drawn to it as so many are, but it will invariably cause you to ask questions, not just of the film, but of yourself.

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Running time: 144 minutes
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Easily the most poetic and haunting film I’ve watched on the big screen in a long time, (Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus comes a close second,) Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an extraordinarily melancholic and layered film that seems to be about so many things, and then again about nothing at all, all at once. But with this film, Paul Thomas Anderson once again underlines the fact that he is one of the most daringly original thinkers that American cinema has produced, ever.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, terrific in his return) is a broken man, a World War II seaman trying to deal with life in a post-war world. He is sexually frustrated, almost always high on booze (that he makes himself using commonplace ingredients that he finds at hand), and is perhaps looking for direction in his life. He seems to find this direction in the words and teachings of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, beautifully nuanced), the founder of a philosophical stream of thought known as ‘The Cause’.

The core of the film is the mysterious relationship between the two polar opposites that Freddie and Dodd (called ‘Master’ by his followers) represent. Freddie is wayward, eccentric, filled with nervous energy that is constantly looking for an outlet, or better yet, a form of control. Dodd, on the other hand, seems always in control for the most. Freddie is, in many ways, looking for meaning in his life, something to bow down to, like a master. Dodd provides that to some extent, but there always seems to be something missing, something that you can’t quite place.

As the film strips away and lays bare before you the characters of Freddie and Dodd, it also hides so much more than it shows, inviting you deeper into it, to draw meaning. Like how some of Freddie’s actions often draw smirks or even laughs, but if you pause to think about it, the weight of loneliness and frustrations behind his actions should, if anything, make one cry.

Of course, pre-release, one of the film’s most talked-about aspects was the fact that the character of Lancaster Dodd is based Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The parallels between The Cause and Scientology are very clear; Anderson makes no attempt to mask it. So be it the past-life regression and the healing powers that Dodd attributes to it, the belief that man can cure his ailments in his current life by delving into his previous lives and curing him there, albeit mentally – all these and many more are all there. However, anyone expecting to find out the mystery behind what makes so many millions around the world follow Scientology as a religion is bound to be disappointed.

Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie is one of the most gut-wrenching portrayals of a character in recent times. Perhaps Daniel Day Lewis did deserve his Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Lincoln, but some may say that the man had the added benefit of prosthetics as well as historical reference points to help him ‘feel’ more like the 16th President of the United State.

But Joaquin Phoenix inhabits Freddie with the kind of body language and state of mind that had no reference point, and for that alone, he must be lauded. Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as Lancaster Dodd. A Paul Thomas Anderson staple, his filmography with Anderson alone shows the remarkable range that Hoffman has. It is tough to even imagine that the same guy who played Scotty in Boogie Nights has played Lancaster Dodd in The Master.

Mihai Mălaimare Jr’s gorgeous cinematography and Johnny Greenwood’s sparsely arranged but no-less haunting music embellish the sense of loneliness and the endless hunt for meaning that the film essentially is. Also, what a pity that we don’t get a 70mm release for the film in India. The kind of detail that every 70mm frame would hold would perhaps give a little more insight into what Anderson is trying to say in every shot.

Paul Thomas Anderson is an absolute master at taking the basest of human characteristics and weaving near-epic films out of them. He is also particularly skilled in making a film feel like it is lighter – so to speak – than it actually is. But with The Master, he goes more esoteric than he has ever done before; it asks more from a viewer than most viewers are used to giving to a film. Though many will disagree, I have long held the view that truly great cinema can only be appreciated on repeated viewings. Anyone who calls, for example, The Godfather, or Pulp Fiction, great films after watching them once has absolutely no idea why these films are great; they have to be watched repeatedly to see what true cinematic greatness is.

Which is why The Master is the kind of film that will have polarized opinions. There will either be those who will reject the film in the first viewing, not wondering what the big deal is about, or there will be those who will feel like continuously revisiting it, attempting to draw more meaning with each subsequent viewing, then reading up on it and watching it again. They will continuously question themselves on what Dodd’s intentions were, when it came to Freddy. Or when, exactly, did Dodd and Freddie first meet? Or was that a hint of homoeroticism they spotted in the relationship between Dodd and Freddie? Or what are Dodd’s exact intentions with The Cause itself? And what, really, does the film even mean? If you are looking for it, the film always gives you the feeling that you’ve missed something. Likely then, that if you ask Anderson himself just what the film is about, he’ll probably only say, “Secrets.”

This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at

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Yay! Thumbs Up, by Murtaza Ali : American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson's hypnotic masterpiece

This page has additional observations, other than the ones noted in the main review.

Parental Guidance:

  • Violence: A few violent brawls
  • Language: Lot’s of strong abuses and abusive slang
  • Nudity & Sexual content: A few sexually explicit scenes, full female nudity, but blurred.
  • Concept: A man looking for direction finds it in a philosophical master
  • General Look and Feel: Beautiful, vivid and melancholic

Detailed Ratings (out of 5):

Lead Actors:
Character Artists:
Music Director:

Comments (1)

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Fine analysis... one of the rare ones that I happen to agree with completely.

The Master, in my opinion, is an endlessly fascinating work of cinema that may require multiple viewings to grasp its deeper meanings. The Master is undoubtedly the best film to have come out of the English-speaking world in the year 2012. It reaffirms Anderson's position as one of the best US directors alive; he looks all set to join the likes of Malick. Anderson’s imaginative direction in The Master reminds one of the singular styles of two of the greatest American filmmakers, Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps, their legacy has finally found a worthy successor.

Here's the link for my complete review:

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