The Master (2012) Combo Pack Review: A Good Movie Not a Great One

It's well-acted, well-directed, and well-constructed. However, there are enough things that end up being off to limit the quality of the film.
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P.T. Anderson's 2012 film The Master seems to have ended up being one of the more polarizing films of the year. Not for the reason some thought, either. The movie centers around a religion/cult called "The Cause" which was, in part, inspired by Scientology. In Hollywood, this can be a sticky wicket. However, it's the content that seemed to divide people. Some thought it was a great movie, others thought it was tedious and mediocre. The film did see three different actors nab Academy Award nominations, but Anderson did not get a nod (but then again neither did Ben Affleck or Kathryn Bigelow) and the film wasn't up for Best Picture either.

Upon viewing The Master, it isn't really surprising that this film seemed more divisive than most. It is certainly idiosyncratic and odd. Fortunately, it is not done in a way that is grating, or in a way that makes it seem like it is being difficult for the sake of it, which is always an irritant. That being said, the film is not without issue, and many of those issues are because of decisions made by Anderson, and by Joaquin Phoenix as well.

Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell. When the film begins, he's serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, but then the war ends and Freddie is cast adrift. His seemingly one marketable skill is his ability to fashion anything at his disposal into a potent alcoholic beverage, and he clearly seems to be suffering from the impact of being at war, and it also seems clear that Freddie wasn't doing too well before heading off either.

Freddie eventually finds his way onto a boat carrying Lancaster Dodd and his followers. Dodd is partially based on L. Ron Hubbard, and he is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. His wife is played by Amy Adams. Dodd is the leader of The Cause, and he and Freddie strike up a relationship that ebbs and flows throughout the movie. And it can't really be described more than that, because it doesn't really go beyond that. Oh, plenty of things happen within their relationship, and Freddie seems always on the verge of destroying Dodd and The Cause even if he doesn't want. But maybe he wants to, at least some of the time. Dodd also seems intent on helping Freddie, or breaking him down.

Here's the thing: It isn't entirely clear what this film is about. I mean, the plot can be followed, and the characters are fairly clearly articulated, but it seems exceedingly insular, and it doesn't feel like it wants to resonate in anyway thematically. Additionally, during a period of time the movie became somewhat muddled and confusing. However, it turned out not to be because of any storytelling issues, but because Phoenix's dialogue was garbled at an inopportune time.

Phoenix's performance is interesting, to put it one way. He was nominated for Best Actor, and it is a good performance. Perhaps it was one of the five best lead performances by a dude in 2012. That being said, he spends the film talking out of one side of his mouth, and he often mumbles and can be incoherent. This, to a degree, makes sense. Freddie is a trainwreck and he's almost always totally drunk. It just can be problematic when, you know, people are watching and trying to follow a story. However, to his credit, Phoenix's physical performance is outstanding. His award nominations may have been built largely on that fact. Just watching him walk is engaging.

Hoffman and Adams were both nominated for supporting awards, and while both do fine, neither performance is particularly impressive. They both did a good job, but they've both also had better performances. Still, they are professionals, and they get the job done. None of the other performances really stick out, but this movie is largely a Phoenix-Hoffman two-hander anyway. Also, unsurprising for an Anderson film, The Master looks top notch, and the cinematography is a notable positive. Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead once again did the music, and he did a solid job.

The Master is a good movie. Not getting a Best Picture nod doesn't seem unreasonable. It isn't a great movie; it doesn't really grab you in a breathtaking fashion. It's no There Will Be Blood, for example. The tone can feel odd at times, in a seemingly intentional way, and certainly the movie demands your attention. It's well-acted, well-directed, and well-constructed. However, there are enough things that end up being off to limit the quality of the film. Also, don't go into this expecting a scathing take on Scientology or anything. This movie isn't really about that. It's not even really about The Cause, which is just a conduit for the relationship of Freddie and Lancaster. If you are interested in two excellent actors playing messed up characters having a very awkward, at times uncomfortable relationship, or if you just like P.T. Anderson, then definitely check out The Master. Especially if you missed Anderson's penchant for full-frontal nudity that was on the sidelines for There Will Be Blood.

The Combo Pack comes with a Blu-ray, DVD, Digital copy, and a post card of Hoffman in character. The Blu-ray has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the image looks consistently exquisite thoughout with strong colors and sharp details. The audio plays on a front-heavy, English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. Other than Phoenix, the dialogue is clear. Greenwood's score comes through in high fidelity. As noted by Mat Brewster, extras include several trailers; the behind-the-scenes featurette "Unguided Message" (SD, 8 min); "Back Beyond" (HD, 20 min), a collection of outtakes/additional scenes that have been edited into their own short film, and John Huston's Let There Be Light (SD, 58 min), a 1946 documentary that was part of Andersons inspiration for The Master.

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