Monday, September 17, 2012


The Master
September 1, 2012 (Venice Film Festival)
September 14, 2012 (United States)
137 min
United States (English)

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

"The Master" is one rare brew of a motion picture. With two performances for the ages in its concoction, it is yet another P.T. Anderson film that is unimaginable beforehand and feels everlasting afterwards.

This is probably the most daunting review I have sat down to write since Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life." These two films have very little in common, but are alike in that both will undoubtedly challenge whoever sits down before them. My expectations going into "The Master" were unquestionably high. I revealed it as my second most anticipated film, but often there was nothing I wanted to see more. I try to avoid being director-centric here on The Film Tome but who am I kidding? I am as much a subscriber to the auteur theory as the next cinephile and if I was forced to choose my favorite American filmmaker alive today it would likely be Paul Thomas Anderson. I will try to avoid discussing his portfolio now (and there's a good chance I will be revisiting most/all of his previous work next month) though I will be making some brief comparisons to "There Will Be Blood" to which "The Master" is his follow-up. This is Anderson's sixth film and is yet another new, bold direction he has taken with some tremendous talent at his side. 

First, Joaquin Phoenix could not have picked a better role or film to relaunch his acting career. (See his years-in-the-making stunt "I'm Still Here," but you probably shouldn't actually see it). Here he is Freddie Quell, a Navy veteren returning to society after a lengthy stint overseas. It seems he was on clean-up duty for WWII, but he never got around to cleaning himself up. Him and the rest suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which will always be a timely issue as long as we are at war. He has also developed a habit of heavy drinking, including stuff nobody should put down their hatch: gasoline for starters. With high anxiety, somewhat of a sex addiction, and violent tendencies he is all washed-up as a sailor... and as a man. Readjusting to society may be in an impossibility. Phoenix wears this mental stress on his countenance and puts the rest of the mileage upon his back, which is always a bit bent as he walks. With delayed reactions and a heavy stupor Phoenix is a wretched wreck that you cannot take your eyes off of. The performance is physically overbearing and mentally draining, something the legendary Klaus Kinski might be doing if he were alive today. And so, with nowhere to go, Freddie Quell drunkly stumbles upon a boat ride that will reroute his life forever more.

Enter Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd. Who is he? "A writer, doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man, just like you," Dodd tells Quell upon their first meeting. Furthermore, he is not just the captain of the boat that Quell awakes and finds himself on, he is the pioneer of a new movement: The Cause. Hoffman (a P.T. Anderson favorite) has yet again shape-shifted himself into another suit. The man's range is astounding and here we see him play a passionate and magnetic presence who has inspired a small group of family and friends to travel with him as he works on further discovering the meaning of life. Dodd is everything that Quell isn't. This is precisely what draws them closer together. Dodd sees in Quell a tortured soul (subject) that needs saving, Quell sees in Dodd a guide, a commander, a master.

Before they reach the land Dodd begins the first of many "applications" on Quell. This takes the form of a delving interview. At one point Dodd tells Quell that he cannot blink and if he does they will start from the very beginning. Dodd pries honest responses from the man seated opposite him and the scene quickly becomes mesmerizing. Anderson employs long takes on each actor's face (captured with pristine sharpness at our 70mm screening) to ensure we watch the sequence play out in real-time. Another all-consuming interaction between the two takes place in a jail cell. When these two square off against each other "The Master" has no competition. It is impossible to say who (of Phoenix and Hoffman) give better work in this film as both performances call on the men to do very different things. Both answer their call with inspiring commitment. It will be a tough call when award season rolls around to give the Best Actor prize to one over the other. At Venice Film Festival last week (where the film officially premiered) they ended up giving it to the both of them.

These giants do overshadow the rest of the cast (just as Daniel Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview did in "There Will Be Blood"), but these co-stars deserve recognition, such as Amy Adams who plays Dodd's wife, Mrs. Master as it were. We see the face she puts on for public appearances and be herself when she talks and interacts with Lancaster alone. Dozen of supporting roles and bit parts, mostly unknowns, work to cement this story in very realized world. Christopher Evan Welch's fine work as an unconvinced partygoer provokes Hoffman's Dodd in a most memorable way.

Returning from "There Will Be Blood" is Jonny Greenwood for the film's score. You'll notice stylistic similarities. The isolated stings of strings to rivet us down (these are used at the very start) and the slow build to an a near ambience state. Greenwood's soundtrack was most effective for me minutes at a time when I felt myself dwindling into the troubling realm that Quell has entered. It had an almost "down the rabbit hole" effect on me, spinning into a cataleptic state, ready to see where Dodd took Quell and I both.

Paul Thomas Anderson's longtime collaborative cinematographer Robert Elswit was noticeably missing from this outing. The unknown-to-me Mihai Malamaire Jr. filled in his ranks. Shot on (and if you're lucky, projected on) 70mm, "The Master" has received a treatment virtually no other non-documentary features are getting the days. With this much firepower (when it comes to shooting movies) they were able to capture it all: From the recesses in Phoenix's furrowed brown to the endless cabbage fields he runs across. From the extreme close-up of Amy Adam's starry, color-changing corneas to the expanse of the Salt Flats. The picturesque shots make this the commercial of the art-house. I've already mentioned the use of long takes, another tool Anderson's keen on. There are some explorations of space that I have never noticed before in all my watchings. The last day of Phoenix's job as a portrait photographer at a fancy shopping center ends with such an offering.

The early '50s are fully in tact. The production designers, set decorators, and costume designers built a world from the details up. It was this time period that Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard. It is no surprise that the Lancaster Dodd character is based on him and The Cause on Scientology. The film is a rather intimate yet damning portrait of the organization. On one hand Dodd is committed to helping Quell, but maybe that is only because Quell is helping him. To add further complexity to the issue, there is evidence that Quell may actually be helped by the exploitative efforts of Dodd and others.

Let me end this review by admitting that "The Master" did not meet my expectations. It subverted them and then, scene by scene, shattered them. Like "There Will Be Blood" before it, this is not a film you will "enjoy." Many of my fellow theatergoers found occasion to laugh at Freddie Quell's behavior. If I did it was only is complete disbelief at was he was drinking this time. I hope audiences can move beyond that emotional response (to be entertained) and realize there is much more at stake, for film's sake and our own. I have scarcely seen a film that held me the way "The Master" did: Half entranced by the sheer expertise on both sides of the camera, half spellbound by the influence of The Cause. 
Rian Johnson, whose "Looper" hits theaters later this month, tweeted his reaction to the film: "'The Master' is a formidable work of art, even after one viewing it's in my head like someone I grew up with." I know this feeling! I only saw "The Master" this very weekend and it is already seated in my personal pantheon. It is a film so particular that it avoids contest, a film ripe for picking lessons from, and film that at the end of the day will leave you far from clear and therefore contemplative. In short, "The Master" taught me a whole lot.


CONTENT: some sexual content, strong sexual dialogue, graphic nudity, some violence, strong language

(Updated on 10/5/12)

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