From about ten rows behind me, someone yells, “Thank God this piece of shit is finally over.” Before the first credit fades onto the screen, half-full popcorn bags are being crushed under feet trying to reach the exits. The crowd makes no qualms about leaving in a hurry. Under breath you can hear things like, “Well, that was crap.” and “Can you believe we paid to see this?” You would think a screening of One for the Money or Resident Evil: Retribution had just let out. In fact, the movie letting out is the latest from auteur Paul Thomas Anderson. The film is The Master and the crowd’s reaction to this fall’s current critical darling is, in fact, not mixed. It is overwhelmingly negative.
At a screening of The Tree of Life a few months back, the crowd’s reaction was a mix of disgust and frustration. Both films have a similar running time, similar critical scores on Rotten Tomatoes, and a similar target audience. Reviews of The Tree of Life and The Master are peppered with words like “difficult,” “stunning” and “magnificent.” In the suburban theater I was at for The Tree of Life, when the film concluded, the restless crowd was agitated to the point of stomping out of the theater, muttering obscenities and demanding their money back.
In the case of The Master, I saw the film twice. My first viewing was at the Village East Cinemas, where a line of people formed almost an hour before the scheduled, sold-out show time. The crowd was absolutely silent as the opening title card faded up. The patrons remained silent and reverent through the end of the credits, almost three hours later. My second screening was at an AMC Theaters in Paramus, New Jersey, where, after nine previews and the difficult two-and-a-half hour film, much of the crowd was angry, sore, and left wondering what they had just seen.
For those who have seen either The Master or The Tree of Life, both films are meant to be foundation for discussion. Even upon multiple viewings of both, I can say that many questions are left wide-open-ended. Many character motivations are up to interpretation and major plot points or twists, if they are to be found, seem to come on like a slow burn. So what is the difference between wide and limited release? Surely crowds in affluent cities and suburbs can both appreciate difficult, scholarly cinema. So what happened when PT’s movie crossed the Hudson?
I believe in the fundamental responsibilities of movie-going. This includes basic courtesies while the film is playing, but it also includes making informed judgments before attending a screening. We are at a point that the flow of information is so instantaneous, that movie reviews are a few thumb pokes away on our phones. The first few critic-capsule reviews of The Master from the Flixster app read as follows:
“A difficult, interesting, odd, frustrating, and oftentimes majestic experience” – N. Nunziata @ CHUD
“…his (PT Anderson’s) narrative approach is ambiguous, opaque and chillingly detached.” –M. Brunson
“This is not a film; it’s a mesmerizing experience” – C. Sawin @ Examiner.com
86% percent of critics, at the time of writing, did not only review the film favorably, but also showered high praise on the acting, directing, and overall scope of the work. Sometimes, on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s difficult to interpret positive and negative reviews. In the case of The Master, the positive reviews are overwhelmingly positive, with many critics already predicting Oscar nominations for all the lead actors, as well as the picture itself and the director.
But what about the user reviews? These come in almost 20% lower than the critic’s reviews. Many users called the film “very disappointing” or “bland in title and concept.” One capsule on the first page said “This is a movie you either love or hate and The Master is 2012’s Tree of Life for me…made absolutely no sense.” The gulf between critics and users is vast, leaving almost no one on the fence about the film.
A limited release of an anticipated film from a highly-respected filmmaker such as Paul Thomas Anderson or Terrence Malick is almost sure to generate buzz. Film aficionados come out in droves to drive up the per-screen box office gross, peppering the internet with sterling reviews and teeing the film up for a wide release. Once the film goes wide, in smaller markets, many times, on pure hype alone, theater chains like AMC are able to open The Master successfully. But what happens when the average patron reads a critic’s capsule review like:
“It’s a surprisingly compassionate look at two people” R. Guzman @ Newsday
“As gifts to homo sapiens go, it’s a rich one” J. Morgenstern @ Wall Street Journal
The answer can be found at the AMC in Paramus where someone was so angry, that they shouted out obscenities for the entire theater to hear. At $15 a ticket, their frustration is understandable. Yet, when you go to the cinema, one must be absolutely sure to check what they’re walking in to. If you enjoy heated discussion after seeing a film, by all means, The Master is for you. If you want traditional narrative structure, a plot that reads like a road map, and actors who fully allow you to understand every bit of their created character, The Master is to be avoided at all costs.