Mastering Pretentious Obscenity

(The Master (2012); Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams;  Rated R for obscenity)

It probably means that I’ve been in Hollywood too long, that I think I was more offended by this movie’s profound and sustained boringness as opposed to its pervasive and gratuitous obscenity.  Don’t get me wrong.  The obscenity is of the most sexist and gratuitous kind, which itself makes the movie, uh, eschewable.  But The Master is so colossally boring that I found myself brooding more during the various exploitive scenes on how bad a director you have to be to wallow in all kinds of nudity and crass sexuality but still produce a movie completely devoid of a pulse.   It’s possibly the dullest movie I have ever seen.  And I spent six weeks in film school watching Soviet era propaganda films, so that is saying a lot.

I need to qualify this review by saying that my husband and I walked out at the hour and a half point.  We were barely thirty minutes into the film when in a moment of mutual groaning – it was after Phoenix masturbated into the ocean, but before he fondled the naked nipple of the soon discarded department store girl – my husband leaned over and said, “Any time you want to go…”  Once it was on the table, I thought about leaving probably every five minutes until the scene in which Amy Adams was reading the uber-crass pornography to Joaquin Phoenix – complete with the c-word – finally drove me up and out.  So, what follows here is technically a review of the first  hour and a half of The Master.  Maybe the movie got stunningly brilliant in the last hour.  I’d still feel like I got vomited on – yet again! – by Paul Thomas Anderson and scammed by this over-hyped bit of trash.

This movie is not really worth a long review, and frankly, I don’t want to force myself back over the hour and a half of tortured ennui and violation just to basically say, “BLECHHHHHHKKKKKKK!”  Suffice it to say, that The Master is the most egregious example yet of Paul Thomas Anderson’s pathological inability to craft a coherent cinematic story.  His movies are generally a mess of self-indulgent scenes with long self-conscious moments.  This one takes the excess to a whole new level.  He had an idea to make a movie about L. Ron Hubbard.  But an idea does not a movie make, and throwing in a lot of crass sexuality to hide the lack of a story is a time-tested recipe for disaster.

For the record, the reason the movie is so damn boring, is that it has no interest in serving the audience by providing anything that people need to connect to and care about a story.  Initially, I thought that the movie had made a very fundamental error in not taking the time to make the protagonist relatable to the audience.  But before long I realized that there is no protagonist in this film and no one with whom the audience is meant to relate so as to take on their transformational journey.  We’re not supposed to travel the story with any of the characters.  We are meant to muse over how brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson must be because he must have some sense of what he’s doing here, right?  I think, wrong.  Anderson is someone who has fallen into the dangerous pit of believing his own hype.

How to account for all the critical raving about the project?  Well,  you do have excellent actors here and while the movie uses them in Anderson’s trademark, way over the top not an ounce of nuance or subtlety, it’s still cool to watch Phoenix with his speech defect and Amy Adams with her unblinking obsession.  It will probably get Oscar noms because actors, who are the main voting block in the Academy, love to laud other actors for over the top screaming and flailing about and doing uber-vulgar things on screen.  They call it “brave.”

On another level, Anderson’s fatuous dabbling in things that are too smart for him absolutely lends itself to critics projecting on the film basically anything they want.  It’s the dubious benefit of making a mess that it can then be claimed to mean anything to anyone.   In the old days, they would have just written it off as a loss of creative control.  But honestly, I think a lot of the critical praise is for the perversion itself.  The depiction of masturbation, for example, is still somewhat of a taboo in moviemaking, but here it happens twice.  A lot of critics think it makes them appear avant garde to act as though this kind of shameless behavior is all just more fodder for artistic expression.

As one last warning, it needs to be said that the depiction of sexuality in The Master is offensively sexist.    It’s not brilliant, it’s abusive.  The movie opens with the image of a woman in sand being, well, I’m too much of a lady to say what the movie shows being down to the image.   It goes beyond just sex.  Then, there is the use of the c-word, which really needs to become the new “N-word” in social discourse.  There is a protracted scene in which nude women of all ages are paraded around dancing in front of men who are wearing their clothes.  In short, I have rarely seen a film in which women are so completely objectified by the director, with no real justification.  You could take all the sex out of the movie and the story – such as it is – would not be altered substantively.  The sex is just there because, well, who know?  Maybe Anderson is some kind of kinky pervert who likes to have nude actresses in his power.

Probably the best thing to be said about The Master is that, for a Paul Thomas Anderson film, it doesn’t unfairly vilify Christianity.  So, you  know, that’s good.

Pass.  Royal pass.


UPDATE:  Comments are welcome.  Insults are not.  If your comment amounts to “You’re a stupid poo-poo head!”  Then, it will not be published.  We reserve the right to edit comments for publication so that they are generally edifying and beneficial.




Coming Soon: Exposing the Ickiness of the Christian Movie Selling Business
“Nothing Left to Say of Me” – Flannery O’Connor’s, “A Prayer Journal”
The Rest of the Review: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal”
Noah – The Emperor’s New Movie
  • Katie van Schaijik

    This line: “we’re meant to muse over how brilliant [the director] must be” captures perfectly a characteristic post-modern conceit. Pretentiousness and perversion masquerading as special profundity. We are very far gone in corruption. How long do we have to wait for the backlash?

  • Christopher Lake

    Barbara, I had a problem with some of the graphic sexuality in the film too, but I didn’t perceive it as being sexist (and I’m a former hard-core “male feminist!”). It just seemed unnecessary, intrusive, and over-the-top to me.

    I do think, however, that the film is quite powerful and artistically successful overall. Portraying reprehensible behavior is obviously not synonymous with glorifying it. I was repulsed, in many ways, by the character of Freddie, but I also felt empathy for him as such a very broken, approval-seeking human being. Why else would he continue to stay with, and then, go back to, Lancaster Dodd, who treats him so badly? In a very ironic and heart-rending way, Freddie’s behavior, in relation to Dodd, seems like a male form of battered wife syndrome.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Jeffrey Overstreet’s first post on the film:

    Of the differing views articulated in this post, I would say that, prior to seeing “Punch Drunk Love,” I honestly used to be closer to the thinking of “Fangirl,” in relation to P.T. Anderson. Now, after seeing “The Master,” I can see the POV of “Mrs. Yuk,” and I can understand her view. In the end though, overall, I agree most with “Mr. Long-winded,” whom I think is closest to Jeffrey’s own view of the film. (I do still wish that the graphic sexuality had been less so.)

    • barbaranicolosi

      Thanks, Christopher. (Dear readers: Please only continue to read here if you are well past the age of 18, and also if you are, well, not likely to be scandalized by a discussion of sexual perversion. I am going to describe some of the graphic sexual material in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film for the purpose of teaching. I regret having to go here, but it seems warranted.)

      It’s true that any pornography featuring women is by definition sexist. Still, the objectification of women by Anderson in this film is qualitatively different than most garden variety objectification we see in R-rated movies. Anderson’s stuff reeked of “Fifty Shades of Grey” domination of women. First you had the rape and then the violent hand rape of the sand woman. The violence here is what was inexcusable. The scene was rendered more horrifically sexist by the way the other male sailors were cast as voyeurs to the violation. So, Anderson has men collectively enjoying a woman being violently raped. As if that is just how men are. Why would we ever want to put that out there? The possible rewards are not worth the cynical vomit that is trying to earn them.

      Then, you have the disrobing and fondling of the woman in the department store. The woman here is nothing but object. She plays absolutely no other role in the narrative and the scene could have been left out completely without changing anything in the main character’s “journey.” So, the woman here only exists to be the object of the male lustful gaze. Then, there is the daughter character feeling up Freddie. It was the first of two scenes in which a woman molests a man in the movie. This reeks of hatred and aversion to woman as the cause of man’s downfall.

      Then, we have the uber-horrific “women as circus animal” scene in which all the women are dancing naked in front of the men who are clothed. Come on – really you don’t see this as sexist?!! If it wasn’t, Anderson would have had the men naked too! This sequence is topped off by the wife, Amy Adams, violently masturbating her husband while she exacts a demand out of him. Again, it was such a perverse rendering of “Eve as Villain” from Genesis that it had me almost laugh – except for the horrible vision of wife that it suggests. I came out of the movie thinking that Anderson needs a two year course in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. After he goes to confession.

      I could not get through Jeffrey’s odd theatrics in defense of this piece. Regrettably, that kind of caricaturing of errors with the mentor/preacher character giving everybody the answers is what makes Christian drama so lamentable. All I really feel like responding to the piece is. “But, for Wales?” (ref. “A Man for All Seasons”)

  • Fordyce

    Barbara, there is a lively discussion of your Master review in progress over at Arts & Faith.
    Also, in case you need further vindication, you will find that Armond White’s assessment more or less aligns with yours:

    • barbaranicolosi

      Thanks, Fordyce – I don’t really require “vindication,” because, to borrow from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, as regards obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

  • Coast Ranger

    I cannot understand why a studio would waste millions of dollars on a film like this and why perfectly good actors, who already have plenty of money, would waste six weeks of their lives acting in it.

  • Christopher Lake

    Barbara, thank you for the reply.

    About the scenes in “The Master” which you mentioned in your reply to me, I agree with you that Freddie’s *thinking and behavior* toward the woman in the department store is horribly objectifying. In my view, that is the very *reason* that the scene was included– to further show the degree to which this man has a twisted, disordered view of woman and sexuality. About the other scene with naked woman dancing around, that scene, to my understanding, is shot from the POV of what the world looks like from inside of Freddie’s mind– again, showing us how he cannot conceive of women in any real terms other than animalistic sexuality. In my opinion, this is an deliberate *indictment* of the character (by the director), not a celebration of him.

    I do wish that the most graphic moments of sexuality had either been left out of the film altogether, or presented in a less overt way. However, as it is, I do not see the sexual depravity in the film as being portrayed in a affirmative way at all. I don’t think that this is just a blind spot on my part as a male either, partially because many other female film critics have reviewed the film and also come away from it with very different impressions than you received from it.

    I respect your view. I just disagree with it.

    • barbaranicolosi

      Christopher wrote: “About the scenes in “The Master” which you mentioned in your reply to me, I agree with you that Freddie’s *thinking and behavior* toward the woman in the department store is horribly objectifying. In my view, that is the very *reason* that the scene was included– to further show the degree to which this man has a twisted, disordered view of woman and sexuality. About the other scene with naked woman dancing around, that scene, to my understanding, is shot from the POV of what the world looks like from inside of Freddie’s mind– again, showing us how he cannot conceive of women in any real terms other than animalistic sexuality. In my opinion, this is an deliberate *indictment* of the character (by the director), not a celebration of him.”

      Freddie’s perversion was evident from the first scene in that powerfully disgusting scene. That would have been enough to tell us who he was. But then, just in case anybody missed it, his perversion was revisited in the Rorshach scene. The next hour or more was just hitting the same point over and over with nothing new added to our understanding of the character. The movie was very much wallowing in the perversion. If the wallowing had been in anything besides twisted sexuality, we would probably all agree that it was self-indulgent of the director/writer to leave in repetitive scenes. But because the subject matter is sexuality – and graphic sexuality – it is suddenly off limits to demur.

      And, of course, I understood that the naked dancing women was a fantasy constructed by Freddie. But I thought it was morally unjustifiable to subject the actors to that kind of degrading moment just to repeat a point that had been made over and over already. I thought the inside of Freddie’s mind was too putrid a place to take the audience without some very good reason. The movie had none to offer.

  • Christopher Lake

    P.S. Sorry for the typos in my reply, Barbara. It has been a long day here, and I’m very, very tired. Pax Christi.

  • Jared

    Barbara, how is the sex and profanity in this different than in Homeland? I just started it (on your recommendation) and by episode 3 there’s already been lots of gratuitous sex, nudity, and profanity — including the c-word — and a creepy husband/wife masturbation scene. I guess I’m curious: why are these deal-breakers in The Master and not in Homeland?

    • barbaranicolosi

      Hi Jared -
      It does seem like inconsistency, doesn’t it? But there are differences. We always want to war against the anti-intellectual thing in certain strands of Christianity that wants to reduce everything to simple formulas, or just not think about them at all. The truth is, as a great historian noted, “A principle applies when it applies and doesn’t apply when it doesn’t.” Or again, Aristotle’s key work is “The Categories.”

      The difference in this case is that there are greater cures to be had in Homeland that balance out the possible infections one could incur from the inappropriate portrayal of sexuality. There are tremendous insights about understanding the mentally ill and the complexity of the human person. The sex is not what the show is about and it is possible to garner much good and enjoyment by just fast-forwarding through the minute or two in a particular hour. In The Master, a much greater share of the time was given over to sexual perversity. Way too much to make the point, namely, that Freddie has a problem. The movie doesn’t have any answer for Freddie, but just wallows voyeuristically in his perversions. Freddie’s perversions are very much the spectacle in the project, which seems to me to be immoral in storytelling. St. Thomas’ principles of double effect ought to be the standard when using that kind of material.

      Secondly, the nature of the sexuality in The Master is of a perverse kind. Why put those kinds of thoughts in human brains? That isn’t true about the sex in Homeland.

      But the larger point in all this is that the portrayal of sexuality is a tricky thing. As Pope John Paul II notes, we are not really capable of watching naked human beings make love without voyeurism. As my friend Sr. Helena Burns says, “As the society has grown more pornified, we’ve all become dirty old men.” Some people are going to be in greater danger and will need to avoid this kind of thing completely. That’s why I always make a strong cautionary note when there is a project that goes into this realm.

  • Jared

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Barbara. I haven’t seen The Master yet so I’ll have to take your judgment of its relative perversity on faith. I certainly agree that there is a fine line between a superfluous depiction of sex that harms the viewer and a crucial depiction of sex that is revelatory of character or some other story element.

    (While I was a little surprised by how raw Homeland was — for some reason I didn’t realize it was on Showtime — my wife and I are hooked. Thanks for the recommendation!)

  • The Master

    This review is serious.

    I love Veggietales myself.

  • Pingback: Former Nun Turned “Script Consultant” No Fan Of The Master « Movie City News()

  • Lou

    Wow, this review is thoughtful.

  • ben hackworth

    Soviet Propaganda cinema? What would that be? Eisenstein’s October? Battleship Potempkin? This cinema is completely riveting and masterfully made. If only most mainstream cinema had the intelligence and poetic strength of this cinema genius.

    I haven’t seen “The Master” — but if it continues to develop Thomas Anderson (like both “Punch Drunk Love” and “There will be Blood” improved upon his earlier films “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights”) then I look forward to its sexual exploitation. Violence, Pornography — all part of the director’s comment on their own internal voyeuristic and fantasy world. The best cinema doesn’t claim to be like life, it’s closer to dreams.

    • barbaranicolosi

      “Soviet Propaganda cinema? What would that be? Eisenstein’s October? Battleship Potempkin?”

      No, as you note, those films are happy exceptions. There were hundreds of awful films made by the Soviet state funded film industry. Really dreadful.

      Well, if you look forward to sexual exploitation, than you probably will enjoy The Master.

    • Norris

      “The best cinema doesn’t claim to be like life, it’s closer to dreams.”

      Yes, but why must some directors dream of excrement?

    • Norris

      “The best cinema doesn’t claim to be like life, it’s closer to dreams.”

      Yes, but why must some directors dream of excrement?

  • ben hackworth


  • GDA

    Barbara–I love the spirit of your review. I couldn’t stop reading your write up. I get why you walked out before the movie was over. That should be the first (and only required) indication to any serious reader that you have a valid critique to offer about “The Master.”

  • MJ Ballou

    I sat through the whole movie. While I was occasionally horrified and repelled, I couldn’t believe that something wouldn’t happen at some point. No such luck. The gentleman walking out at the end ahead of me asked where he could go to get those wasted hours back. All the movie told viewers was that clever crazy people start cults and that other crazy people join them. I did find Anderson’s earlier films intriguing, but now he seems to be just rolling around in a circle with random sex scenes and occasional violence.