Premise: (from IMDB) A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.
About: Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights) had been talking about making this movie for awhile, but backed off it a couple of times before finally committing to it. The main issue seemed to be that the script was based off of the early days of L Ron Hubbard and his spooky little cult religion, Scientology. To get around this, Anderson simply states that the movie has nothing to do with Scientology, which it of course does, but keeps him safe from the evil-doer scientists in the aforementioned religion, who have been known to ruin people’s lives who take them on.
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
I have seen many movies in my lifetime. Good movies. Bad movies. Fun movies. Weird movies. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie as boring as The Master. A long time ago, Paul Thomas Anderson’s script was floating around and I was wondering if I should read it, but everybody who’d read it said the same thing: “It must be a really early draft because it’s barely readable. Nothing makes sense.” I didn’t want to review something that raw so I moved on. But it looks like that’s the actual draft he shot! I don’t know if Anderson is getting lazy, if he’s taking too many drugs, or if he just doesn’t care anymore, but this has to be one of the worst scripts I’ve ever seen turned into a film.
One need look no further than The Master’s story to see how little effort was put into the script. Imagine a first draft, but the kind of first draft where you’re not even trying – where you’re just attempting to find a few good scenes – where your goal is more to get to the end than construct a compelling drama. That’s The Master. It’s almost comical when you try to summarize it, because it’s so random, so directionless. But I’ll try my best. Here’s my summary of The Master’s plot…
It’s the 50s I think. And we’re introduced to a soldier named Freddie. Freddie has some sort of mental condition although we’re never told or given a hint as to what it is. Like a lot of things in The Master, it’s vague – not on purpose, but because Anderson was too lazy to figure it out. Anyway, Freddie’s the kind of guy who will masturbate out in the open, in front of everybody. So yeah, we love this character right away.
In addition to this, Freddie hovers back and forth between a socially awkward weirdo who can barely interact with other human beings and an ultra smooth lathorio who women can’t keep their hands off of. How is this possible? I’ll venture to take a guess. Because Anderson didn’t know anything about the character and made it all up on the fly.
In addition to Freddie being a nerd/ladie’s man, he also has a talent for mixing alchohol in weird and unique ways. He can whip up a doozy of a drink with a full bar, but sometimes goes too far and adds questionable ingredients, like paint thinner! This ends up eventually killing people wherever he goes, so he always gets chased out of every group he becomes a part of. Hmm, a nonsensical alcohol mixing paint thinner backstory. Riveting. And totally relevant.
So after bouncing around, Freddie happens upon a strange miniature cult leader/boat enthusiast/author named Lancaster Dodd. Dodd doesn’t like being on land because…um, because he doesn’t like people approaching him or something?? Dodd likes Freddie for no reasons that are apparent to the audience. He just likes him because the script needs him to like him.
It is through this weird friendship that Dodd, who is in the process of creating a new religion, decides to make Freddie his main disciple. His reasoning, according to him, is that Freddie is “fearless.” But it’s pretty clear that Freddie is just stupid. And weird. That’s one of the only consistencies about The Master – that nothing makes sense and everything often contradicts itself.
Unfortuantely for the actors, and the audience, Anderson has no idea where to go with the story from here. We just sort of stumble along, with the only real hint of a plot being the release of Dodd’s second book. But even that seems to be forgotten for most of the screenplay and is sprung upon us out of nowhere near the end of the second act (if there even were acts?). The story here was so formless and random that I remember at one point thinking the film could either end in 5 minutes or 50 minutes. That’s how little purpose or direction it all had. You just had no idea where the hell it was going!
And that can be fun if there’s an actual story. But there wasn’t any. It literally felt like Anderson woke up each day of shooting, asked the actors what they wanted to do, and just played around with a bunch of random scenes until they shot something they liked, logic and story be damned.
I’ll tell you the scene that really did it in for me. It’s a scene on the ship when Dodd first calls stowaway Freddie into his quarters. Dodd starts off the scene by scolding Freddie for being a deadbeat drunk, telling him that he’ll never amount to anything because of his dependency on alcohol. The two then talk for a few minutes and how does the scene end? By Dodd saying he got wasted on Freddie’s special alcohol mix, loves it, and he desperately wants him to make more so they can get drunk again.
Uhhhhh…what???? “You’re a stupid drunk. Clean yourself up. Oh hey, let’s make some more alcohol and get wasted.” This epitomizes just how nonsensical and high Anderson was when he was writing and shooting this. Absolutely NOTHING made sense.
And there was no BUILD to this story. Dodd was at the same place in his career at the end of his movie as he was the beginning. This would’ve been so much better had we watched Dodd rise up as an unknown nobody into a dominant cult leader with sweeping power and influence, much like Anderson did with There Will Be Blood. You then pitt people against him, people to call him out, and relish in the sustained conflict that storyline offers. We almost ALMOST got a hint of this early on, and not surprisingly, it was one of the best scenes in the movie. At a party where Dodd is explaining his philosophies, a man walks in and challenges him in front of everyone, calling his work a sham. Dodd is forced to defend his stance, and it’s an intense and riveting standoff. We needed more scenes LIKE THAT. Instead, the conflict amounts to Dodd encountering a series of tiny inconsequential incidents which had no consequences whatsover. Dodd was never in any danger or trouble. So who cares? Even when he goes to jail for…I don’t know, being “cultish” or something, he’s out of there in a day and back to his life. Where were the stakes????
There was so little here that was thought through. And it’s a shame. Because the cinematography was amazing. The score was great. The actors came to play. Hoffman, especially, was great. But even though Phoenix’s performance was memorable, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Not because it served the story, but because Anderson clearly told him to act however fucking crazy he wanted to, then yelled action. Talk about an uncontrolled and random performance. Again, I still don’t know if Freddie is a stud or a dork. I don’t know anything about him.
Obviously, I’m disappointed by this effort. Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few truly original voices out there that Hollywood allows to make movies. He owes it to himself and to us to give everything he can on the script, and not just one-draft it ala prequel George Lucas. The abysmallness of this script is right up there with Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Just embarrassingly awful. So upset by this script and film.
What I learned: Laziness in scriptwriting ALWAYS COMES BACK TO BITE YOU. You can’t hide it. Readers aren’t stupid. They will always spot it. They will always call you out. And we all know when we’re doing it. We all know when we’re being lazy. We all try to talk ourselves into why it’s okay for that specific scene or moment. DON’T FALL INTO THAT TRAP. Don’t let a single piece of your script be lazy. It will come back to bite you, I promise.