You are going to look at me, and you’re not going to blink.
I’m going to tell you a series of things about this film, and if you blink, I’ll have to start again.
The Master is a hypnotic film.
The Master is a hypnotic film. It’s hypnotic in that it repeats itself, repeating phrases and instances and scenes and moments so that through repetition it gets under your skin. You watch it and you are walking from the window to the wall, from the window to the wall, searching to feel something other than what’s in front of you. Is that a man on a ship, or is that a drunk on screen, or just a spent actor making his “comeback” after failed attempts at socially destructive irony?
The film repeats and repeats, and seems to always be moving forward but doesn’t really move very far at all. We’re listening to actors shout, we’re listening to ideas be put in place, but then when we get there, when we get to that end after quite a long stay, when we’re there where we think we’ve been going the whole time?
Maybe there was nothing there to begin with. Maybe it’s all a facade, maybe we’re sucked in by a compelling story, maybe we’re sucked in by the titillation, by the idea, by the thought of taking on something almost real, something dangerous.
Maybe this is the first failure at narrative by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Maybe The Master is a terrible film.
You blinked. We have to start again.
The Master is a brilliant film. The Master is a brilliant film. The Master almost has to be a brilliant film. The Master is a film is made by one of the brightest cinema minds of this or any generation. The Master is inarguably a stunning film, shot with the pallor of Kodachrome, a chromaticism of a time gone by. The Master is a brilliant film because it was shot in 70mm, and then, for reasons beyond me as of yet, presented in Academy aspect rather than the usual 5-perf, 2.20:1 that we’d expect from 70mm epic. The Master has been pillarboxed. The Master will be pilloried.
The Master is an epic. It is a film shot with and projected for 70mm presentation, but it barely widescreen and will fit fullscreen on your widescreen devices. The Master is a film that’s meant for the giant screen, with moments of intense intimacy, with closeups that have the actors’ stubble dancing in and out of focal ranges of mere inches.
For such anticipation was The Master the Toronto Film Festival dug out old projectors to use. They had to retrofit the theatre to work with this film. This film required effort.
For this feat of technology and brawn and bravado, they had to spend hours making things work. They spent hours making things right, things had to be changed, to be arranged. They had to change things so that we could see the thing the way it was meant to be seen. It is no small thing that for many of those that sat more than a few rows back, this thing, this effort, was a wasted thing. This was a thing that likely few would know or care about if they hadn’t been told. This was a thing for the initiated.This was a thing that was good because people were told it was good, but for some they could see it was good. For others it was good because they were walked from the wall to the window, from the wall to the window.
For The Master is a brilliant film for those of us with a love of giant celluloid projections, but also confusing for us. For The Master is, if anything, a confusing, a confused film.
Yes, The Master is a brilliant film. Yet, what do we get from it being in 70mm? We get an almost grainless image. The palate is one of a snapshot which is normally littered with grain. We get the image of near video perfection and clarity, but with cigarette burns in the corners, flickering noise and dust on the screen. We get an impeccable image, a sumptuous colour, but we also get the sense that there’s still a digital hand at work in some of the shots. We get startling moments where eyes change colour as we’re watching. The Master is a brilliant, modern film film using old technology to present an old story in a new way that’s still old fashioned.
You blinked. We have to start again.
The Master is a film that makes you lose sleep if you let it. The Master is a film that makes you think you missed something when maybe there was nothing there to miss. This is a film that will win plaudits and awards, and warm the hearts of a very small audience indeed. The Master is a film that will be much talked about and little watched. The Master is a film that at its heart tells the story of two men, who at his heart is a man shaped by a woman. In so doing, The Master in fact tells the story of one man. The Master tells the story of man.
This is just not the story of The Master and his is servile companion and shrewish wife, this is a story of The Master and his Id. This is a film with behaviours flying in the face of psychological convention that reads as almost entirely Freudian. This is one of the great ironies of The Master, as well as that other group that The Master teases at talking about, that the very mechanisms that makes “The Cause” work, the very methods of discussion or interrogation or confrontation or analysis or brainwashing, are twists of the scientological methods of the founder of modern psychology with his talking cure.
The Master is a Freudian film. The Master is an anti Freudian film. The Master is an film about religion. The Master is a film trashing all religions. The Master cannot be pinned down so easily whatever your prejudice.
The Master is a confounding film. The Master is a brilliant, confouding film.
You blinked. We have to start again.
Joaquin Phoenix is an animal. No, really, Joaquin Phoenix is an animal, he is rude and obnoxious, and showed up at the red carpet and blew by fans and didn’t stop for press and had made terrible decisions in his past. Joaquin Phoenix is amazing in this film by being an animal. Joaquin Phoenix talks from the side of his mouth in this film, he holds his arms by his sides and walks with the gait of a gorilla, and serves with the ferocity and supplicance of a dog. Joaquin Phoenix is Mr. Id, stomping his feet or beating his fists or thrusting his hips to count out his sins. Joaquin Phoenix’s character is all impulse, all the things The Master is trying to rid from us, all the things his own master wants to be, the very Animal we’re trying to remove from our real selves.
We see Joaquin drink and fuck and fight. We see an animal on screen, and by the end, we’ve seen little to show that the animal has evolved, save for that the animal has learned a few new tricks in order to better drink and fuck and fight. We see no arc in this arc. This is a character plateau, a salt flat, a place where you ride your motorcycle to whatever point you want as fast as you can.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a monster who appears as a saint and just wants to be an Animal. No, not really, Phillip Seymour Hoffman is quite a nice guy, but in The Master Phillip Seymor Hoffman is a monster. He is the monster master, the master of monsters, he is masterfully toying with lies and truths and deceits and convictions and does so with a grace and elegance that belies his skills as an actor. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a monster who appears as a saint and just wants to be an Animal, drinking below deck.
The character of the master also rides his motorcycle across that salt flat, he too by the end has changed very little, he too by the end makes us wonder just what point we were riding those motorcycles to in the first place, what point we were to ride as fast as we can until we get somewhere only to see in the end the shape diminishing in the distance, an audience left in a theatre with its lights now turned on, foolishly walking as he does after a diminishing motorcycle. We walk with him along the salt flats trying to catch up at something that has passed us by. Inside, we are worried there was never a path to follow in the first place.
These two men will over shadow the central female character in the film, but Amy Adams is extraordinary. Amy Adams has supernatural eyes, Amy Adams is the matriarch who doubts, the Lady McBeth who sneers, the pregnant woman who helps birth the ideas, who remains true to the convictions of “The Cause”. Amy Adams has the look of a frightened teenager and the smile of a carefree singer from some Muppet film. Yet she, in but an instant, manages to convey some of the coldest, most penetrating and least bombastic terror in the film.
Amy Adams is not to be fucked with
Amy Adams is fucking with you the whole time.
You blinked, but we’ll keep going, but we’re not really worried about whether you’re really blinking. We’re made to worry about the idea of you blinking. We watched you blink all along, and yet we kept going, and felt anxious because of that.
You watched, and blinked, and we kept going until we were told you blinked.
When we find ourselves in England, when we find ourselves in a peaked ceiling room, which may or may not be a dream, when we find the Master himself behind a desk, when we find our Animal responding to a phone call in a theatre, a phone call made in a dream, because we’re told it’s a dream, we find that nothing has happened.
We instead find one of the more deflating endings in recent memory. We find a voyage that almost makes the journey redundant because nothing has changed. By the end we are to have changed, we have seen something that we haven’t seen before, or seen things that we have seen before done with the way we have seen them done.
If we start pulling at threads, narrative or otherwise, we’ll see women taken from department stores that disappear, we have moments in cabbage fields that feel tacked on. We have dramas and jailings and fights and confrontations and beat-ups and mash-ups and all kinds of things that while watching the first time that are absolutely and entirely enthralling.
We have no milkshakes here. We have no straws. We have no moment like we had last film where things are loose and things swing by and then the coalesce. We have no frogs dropping from the sky, we have breasts and a bed and an England and a cheap parlour trick during sex.
We have no moments where the delightful turns and twists and anticipations coalesce, or even avoid coalescing in an interesting way. Things don’t coalesce, but they do so in a way that’s not very interesting. We’re left with a pile, a puddle, a series of moments and little to show, a series of conversations without a coherent topic.
The question, then, is whether the emptiness of much of the film supplants what we want from this movie. We want it to be great. After all, The Master is a brilliant film. We want it to be.
We want to know that sleeping with your Aunt is more than a cheap shot, we want to know that running away will either be fixed or permanently broken. We want some sense, some sense of catharsis, or anti-catharsis, or at least some sense that we and the filmmakers were along for the same ride.
In the end, I think Paul Thomas Anderson and friends were on a ride that I wasn’t invited on. I wasn’t given a ride. I wasn’t given a seat. I was mere voyeur to either an exercise in acting bravado or an exercise in futility.
The filmmakers picked a point off into the distance, and I thought they had picked a different one. As they were riding along, as fast as they could, I was waiting for them to steer, to go in a direction I thought they should. Any direction, really. I’m not sure they ever had a point, not sure they had a place they were riding to.
They were just riding.
They were on that motorcycle, going as fast as they could, and it still took 2 1/2 hours. And it was brilliant.
And it was empty.
The Master is a brilliant film. The Master is a confounding film. The Master is a terrible film. The Master may talked about for the ages or forgotten in a few years. The Master may be a masterpiece, The Master may be empty of content masked by strong moments of acting prowess and visual flare. The Master is a repetitive film.The Master is a repetitive film. The Master is a brilliant film, but it is a hard film to love, and an easy film to hate. The Master is a brilliant film.
The Master… is.
You can blink now.