Tag Archives: cult

Does The Master reveal Paul Thomas Anderson to be a cult leader?

Rather than review Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film The Master, I’m much more interested in taking a closer look at its critical reception; because I’m an English teacher and not a film critic, I find the discourse more fascinating than the film’s actual merits and flaws. The film has garnered lavish praise from an overwhelming consensus of film critics, and that could very well affect your reaction to (or even viewing of) the film.

At the time of writing (Fri 2 Nov), collative site Rotten Tomatoes says that The Master has an 85% approval rating from critics, but 60% from non-critics – that’s a 25% discrepancy. Metacritic, which exercises a bit more quality control, calculates an 86% critic approval contrasted with a dismal 43% approval rating among non-critics; that’s a 43% difference.

Are critics really so different from thoughtful movie-watchers who bother to actually sign up and contribute to Metacritic? You actually have to defend your rating on Metacritic; it’s not a matter of casually clicking on a number. And Metacritic users can obviously see what the critics have said. Granted, there are some films that are perfect for critics but not audiences, and I’d love to hear of some comparable examples in the comments. But even so, this is notable because it’s a massive discrepancy on a substantial scale. What on earth is going on? Let’s look at a cross-section of quotes and see if we can make sense of this.

Numerous critics from highly-esteemed publications stumble over each other to be the most ardent disciple of cinematic master PTA. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone stridently opens his review with: “I believe in the church of Paul Thomas Anderson… [he] refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences… Written, directed, acted, shot, edited and scored with a bracing vibrancy that restores your faith in film as an art form, The Master is nirvana for movie lovers.”

Is he seriously saying that if we don’t positively rate this film, then we’re lazy cinema-goers who don’t properly love movies? It’s telling that Travers proclaims that he is a follower of Paul Thomas Anderson’s cult while burying this admission with adulatory adjectives and bludgeoning us with his self-righteousness. A.O. Scott of The New York Times at least hints at the divisive nature of the film before professing his faith in PTA: “This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief… It is a movie about the lure and folly of greatness that comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to being a great movie. There will be skeptics, but the cult is already forming. Count me in.”

The majority of positive critics’ reviews sound like some form of cult worship. And granted, Paul Thomas Anderson is a darling of film buffs, who understandably gravitate towards auteurs; think of how films by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers garner support before the trailers are even cut. Perhaps film critics, whose occupational hazard is to take their opinions very seriously, are somehow compelled to continue praising the work of these auteurs, since they’ve written glowing reviews of their previous films. Oddly, Peter Bradshaw refutes this idea in the opening of his review in The Guardian: “Nothing makes critics more nervous than a director who makes two exceptional films in a row. Reviewers get a bit self-conscious about dishing out the top prize again, scared of looking like fanboys and pushovers. They feel the need to change the mood, to validate the uniqueness of their former praise.” To me, it sounds suspiciously like Bradshaw is trying to put some spin on the fact that he’s jumped on the bandwagon along with the other critics… like it’s so brave of him to be a film critic and a fan of Anderson’s work.

In the Metacritic tally, there are scant examples of critics who don’t prostrate themselves before The Master (though some more even-handed, non-listed responses have begun to emerge: check out Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound). One well-defended response comes from famed thumbs-user Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times, whose opening sentence is: “The Master is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” While this isn’t a review per se, I can’t pretend to be totally objective – I agree with Ebert. There are plenty of laudable aspects of the film: the extremely committed performances, its striking visuals, the resonance of the post-WWII time period with cult formation, Jonny Greenwood’s impressionistic score. But all to what end? For me, watching the film was challenging, but not in the intellectual sense; it challenged me in an existential sense. I wondered why I was sitting there, watching the film. Why it exists. What its purpose is. How it got there. The film, to me, is frustratingly far less than the sum of its parts.

Another independent review is from and Richard Corliss of Time Magazine, who engages with the contention of many critics that Anderson is a visionary ahead of the curve, mentioning that the filmmaker is “apparently determined to rewrite 2,500 years of dramatic literature.” I’m no traditionalist, but established principles of good storytelling just aren’t redefined by this purposefully oblique film. Anderson may be a model of devotion to film and The Master does reflect this – but is it a well-told story? Cinephiles who have decided that it is cannot avoid proselytizing this cinematic master they badly want to believe in – and that is so beautifully ironic.

Look, I am an unashamed fan of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and I appreciated There Will Be Blood. Plus it’s an achievement in itself that The Master can provoke such powerful reactions from its audience. But this feels like that old fable about the Emperor and his new clothes. A purportedly masterful man creates what people choose to believe is fantastic yet invisible to nonbelievers, and in the end, a child has to point to the Emperor and yell, “but he’s not wearing any clothes!” So this is me being that child, trying to break the spell of groupthink. Though by all means, go and see The Master for yourself, and form your own opinions regardless of what everyone else says.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a mostly gripping, yet slightly smoke-and-mirrors study of one young woman’s psychological distress following a traumatic experience, marked by an excellent central performance from newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (yes, younger sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley).

The film begins with our heroine Martha escaping a commune in the Catskills to find refuge in the house inhabited by her elder sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by the very English Hugh Dancy). Gradually, it is revealed that the troubled Martha has extricated herself from a sinister cult presided over by the shamanic Patrick (John Hawkes) and populated by a host of servile young women and none-too-bright young bucks.

The film cross-cuts back and forth from past to present, augmented by some terrific, slinky transitions from editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier that blur the line between real and imagined, while an abstract threat constantly lingers in the background thanks to the atmospheric use of sound and a discordant score.

Olsen is superb, alternately fierce, cocksure, naive and vulnerable, and it will be no surprise if lazy journalists (not me, you understand) begin to refer to her as this year’s Jennifer Lawrence who, of course, gave good woman-in-backwoods-peril opposite Hawkes in the Oscar-nominated indie Winter’s Bone. Hawkes as Patrick cuts a wiry, even disturbingly thin, figure and has a charismatic verve, though his rent-a-cult aphorisms begin to pall after a while, and the commune and its inner workings are particularly – and disappointingly – thinly drawn.

Within this tense thriller lie some interesting themes, for example the binary opposition of Martha’s past and present living conditions. A heavily influenced and naive Martha seems to conflate the rural simplicity and routine of the commune with freedom despite the various abuses she has suffered, and rebels against the monotonous materialism personified by the bland domesticity of Sarah and Ted’s married life. Dancy (whose stiff, declamatory Englishness is used for something approaching comic effect) delivers a pompous dinner table defence of capitalism which goes some way to underlining her mistrust of such conformist living.

Martha Marcy May Marlene, however, is far from perfect. Even with the knowledge that much of what happens is filtered through the unreliable psychological state of our heroine, there are one or two staggering plot inconsistencies that undermine the drama to damaging effect. It would be wrong to give too much away, but you will certainly be wondering why the cult let Martha get away so easily when you find out what they’ve been up to, and perhaps even more frustrating is Lucy’s howlingly irritating disinterest in finding out about the details of her younger sister’s ordeal – it takes over an hour for her to conclude that the clearly distressed Martha “might need help”, and she never seriously enquires about what she has been through.

Despite its flaws, Martha Marcy May Marlene is well worth seeing, and marks a promising debut for writer-director Sean Durkin, provided he goes down the route of adding a bit more substance to his films.

Re-Viewed/Re-Assessed: Cruising

GUEST POST: Read a piece I wrote about William Friedkin’s 1980 sleazefest Cruising starring Al Pacino, over at great new film blog Cinemart Online. The article makes reference to the following:


Don’t say you haven’t been warned.