Perspective: ‘The Master’ is too muddled to be a masterpiece

The few negative reviews of “The Master” — and yes, there have been a few — have used adjectives like “oblique” and “opaque” to describe this often perplexing opus from writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. More enthusiastic critics have described the film as “elusive,” “enigmatic” and “confounding.” One glowing review rhapsodizes that the movie “defies understanding.”

If these seem like strange words of praise, you may need a crash course in new critical and directorial fashions. “The Master” epitomizes the rise of a new school of enigmatic movies, which parallels similar post-modern developments in literature and music.

Recent movies embracing inscrutability hark back to landmark European films of the 1960s that shattered traditional narrative conventions. Films like Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup” and Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour” incorporated surreal dream sequences and built toward mysterious, sometimes impenetrable endings that delighted art house audiences of the era.

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This cryptic style of filmmaking has resurfaced in recent movies by Terrence Malick — “The Tree of Life” as well as his newest effort, “To the Wonder” — and even Christopher Nolan, who made the mind-bending thriller “Inception” that tantalized many audiences (and left others befuddled). And this same oblique approach to storytelling has characterized a new generation of European filmmakers such as Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke.


“The Master” aims to join this company, but its release only proves to me that the cult of incoherence is beginning to pall. Too many movies, novels and even TV series dispense with all sense of logic; they revel in unintelligibility and dare audiences to enter their tangled web.

It is probably easier to accept these films if they announce from the outset that they are working in a more impressionistic vein. Although I was not a fan of “The Tree of Life,” I understood that Malick never intended to spin a Hollywood-style narrative. He was aiming for something closer to a lyric poem or an atonal symphony than a traditional drama. The problem with “The Master” is that it does not really present itself as this kind of experimental effort. It starts out telling a straightforward story but then veers into murkier terrain without ever establishing a clear set of ground rules.

The movie has a few compelling dramatic scenes, striking visual design, and two strong performances, though in my view, only one of these performances fully works. Joaquin Phoenix is a magnetic actor, but he can’t transcend the limitations of his underwritten role. We never discover what turned Phoenix’s Freddie Quell into such a drunken, destructive lout, and without any explanation for Freddie’s violent outbursts, it’s impossible to develop a shred of sympathy for him.

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We don’t learn much about the background of the “master,” Lancaster Dodd, either, but in this case, the character of a seductive, self-confident guru is fresh and intriguing enough to compel our attention, and Philip Seymour Hoffman gives an astonishing performance that is unlike anything else he has done. Publicity has likened Dodd to L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of Scientology, but the character also resembles Jim Jones or Werner Erhard, the founder of est, or indeed any of the other shamans who created self-help movements that mesmerized hordes of followers. The movie’s best scenes are those in which Dodd hypnotizes his disciples or argues with a skeptic who challenges his mystical credo.

But there’s a hole at the center of the movie. We can understand why Freddie, an angry loner, would be drawn to the surrogate family that Dodd dangles before him. But why is Dodd so fascinated by Freddie? Is there a hidden homoerotic attraction that motivates Dodd? Given the rumors swirling around some prominent adherents of Scientology, it’s tempting to pursue this interpretation, but the actors play their scenes together without any erotic spark that’s visible to the viewer, and there’s no hint that Dodd may be a closet case. So why is he so obsessed with the brutish Freddie? Questions multiply, but no answers are forthcoming.

In a sense the tortured relationship between these men recalls the conflict between the antagonists of Anderson’s last movie, “There Will Be Blood” — the rapacious oil tycoon played by Daniel Day-Lewis and the unctuous preacher portrayed by Paul Dano. But it was much clearer what those characters represented and why they agitated each other, and it could be that “Blood” remains Anderson’s best movie because it’s the only one in which he was adapting a work by a gifted storyteller, novelist Upton Sinclair.

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In “The Master” we struggle to understand the bond between the animalistic Freddie and the more cerebral Dodd, and just when we begin to grasp the source of their connection, the essence of this murky relationship slips away from us.

This highlights the central question that haunts this maddening movie: Should art clarify, or should it mystify and obscure? I have always been more drawn to works that bring a measure of clarity to the chaos of life, but I certainly recognize the value in both artistic approaches. It can be fun to interpret and debate a more ambiguous, unresolved film. For example, it’s stimulating to probe the secrets of Haneke’s films. Who made the videos that torment Daniel Auteuil’s character in “Cache”? Who committed the sadistic acts in “The White Ribbon”? These masterly films cast a spell without providing neat Hollywood endings.

Even so, there is a lot more clarity in these Haneke movies or in many of the foreign film masterpieces of an earlier era than there is in “The Master.” My frustration with that film was crystallized when I went to see the new digital restoration of David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” in connection with the 50th anniversary of the film’s release.

In some ways it’s unfair to compare these films, except that the desert scenes in “The Master,” with figures disappearing and reappearing like mirages in the burning sun, seem intended to invoke the famous images of “Lawrence.” In addition, the breathless reviews of “The Master” suggest that it is the equal of “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Citizen Kane” or “Grand Illusion” or any of the greatest landmarks in cinematic history. But it falls far short of these masterpieces.

“Lawrence” dissects its tormented hero with piercing insight, and it also provides a trenchant overview of the politics of the Middle East that remains remarkably timely today. It’s a visually stunning, thematically rich film that is not without its mysteries. Yet Lean’s vision is absolutely lucid, reminding us that clarity in art does not preclude complexity. “The Master,” ambitious and provocative as it may be, ultimately becomes a muddled journey to nowhere.

Farber is a film writer and historian and president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.


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