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P.T. Anderson’s Paradoxical Cult Drama The Master

For all its 1950s splendor, the new Philip Seymour Hoffman spellbinder is a completely up-to-the-minute film.

by
John Boot

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September 25, 2012 - 7:00 am
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As a study in what attracts losers and loners and lost boys to cults, The Master is exceptionally astute and convincing. However, once it gets going it is also in dramatic terms an endless series of fallings-out and reconciliations between the two principal characters, and even at the end of the movie it seems as if this cycle could simply continue indefinitely. We don’t really ever come to completely understand the two key characters, nor the ruthless wife (Amy Adams) of the Master, who at times seems to be the power behind the throne.

The fog-of-nostalgia style and mood of the department store scenes suggest Anderson is trying for a Mad Men feel, and the eerie calm of the war scenes recalls Terrence Malick films such as The Thin Red Line. Both Malick and Mad Men share a similar tendency to hover around the edges of the moment, to limit dialogue, to leave the most pivotal episodes undramatized for the viewer to imagine. Anderson’s film is close kin to these.

Anderson is a leader in this new film and television movement that evades any answers as too easy or pat or traditional, a tactic beloved by a buzzy artsy crowd eager to pick up on open-endedness as a stimulant to their own conversation. The two-way nature of, for instance, social media, in which audience participation and customization is everything, neatly dovetails with the aesthetic tendencies of a generation wary of being tied down to any idea. So for all its period splendor, The Master is a completely up-to-the-minute film. Due to Anderson’s exceptional gifts for visual storytelling, deploying soundtrack music, and guiding actors, it’s well worth seeing. But with its langorous disdain for getting to the point, it’s also destined to puzzle and annoy many viewers.

Updated: See Andrew Klavan’s take:

Why The Master Is No Master-Piece

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Check out PJ Lifestyle’s coverage of cults from Jeanette Pryor who will be writing about The Master soon from the perspective of a former cult member: 

Toxic Activism: Is Politics Your Drug of Choice?

Cults: The Mind Enslaved

Escaping Cults: The Mind Enslaved, Part II

More on movies from John Boot at PJ Lifestyle: 

Batman, One Percenter?

Do We Really Need Another Spider-Man Movie? 

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John Boot is the pen name of a conservative writer operating under deep cover in the liberal media.
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