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VENICE REVIEW: Anderson's 'The Master' Impresses and Befuddles; Phoenix & Hoffman Both Outstanding

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood September 1, 2012 at 11:16AM

What has Paul Thomas Anderson wrought with “The Master”? A film that’s majestic and masterly if not a masterpiece, which draws sustenance from masters of the past, filmic, literary and artistic, and is pinioned by two colossal characters as it recounts the early, stuttering formation of a Scientology-style self-help belief system.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'The Master'
Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'The Master'

Amy Adams is also strong as Dodd’s fiercely protective wife, and, kicked off by an angry cello, Anderson keeps up his fondness for urgent, inexorable music scores, this one, like “There Will Be Blood,”  by Radiohead star Jonny Greenwood.

But for all that’s so very right about “The Master,” the narrative is perhaps less crisp and dynamic than “There Will Be Blood." Following a superb opening stretch in which Quell’s existential, alcohol-soaked anguish is mapped out across the wartime Pacific, American-dream department stores and immigrant-filled cabbage fields before his accidental arrival and long, slow induction into Dodd’s sphere, the second half is less propulsive and sometimes puzzling.

Letting the dramatic tension he’d established with such consummate skill fizzle away, Anderson almost seems at a loss where to steer Freddie and Lancaster’s relationship. The fact that they both end up in England brings an unsatisfying conclusion to their journey, leaving both master and former disciple in a vague purgatory. Maybe that’s the point, and one a second viewing might confirm. With such a formidable reputation, maybe it’s unfair that we expect to always walk away from Anderson’s films feeling awed and should just be content that he continues to create such distinctive and unforgettable cinema.

This article is related to: Venice Film Festival, Festivals, Festivals

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.