Home > Film & stuff > My Thoughts on ‘The Master’

My Thoughts on ‘The Master’

I had the absolute privilege of seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in a stunning 70mm film format at The Landmark movie theater in Los Angeles this evening. The film opened this weekend in only four theaters nationwide, but don’t worry, it will be spreading in the weeks to come (although finding a 70mm theater might be harder than you think).

I’ve been excited for this one for a good long while, although I’m excited anytime Anderson puts out a film. His last feature, There Will Be Blood, was released five long years ago and Punch Drunk Love came out five years before that, so a PTA film is a rare and wonderful treat. His style is distinctive but also fluid, something that The Master epitomizes because it feels precisely like a Paul Thomas Anderson movie while simultaneously existing in a unique class of its own. Although his films have always been intelligent above all else, they also all possess a crowd-pleasing quality (well, pleasing for some crowds– not everyone delights as much as I do at Daniel Day-Lewis’ savagery in There Will Be Blood or Tom Cruise’s over-the-top misogyny in Magnolia). The Master, although driven by memorable performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is not one for the masses. It’s quite intangible, at least it is to me, and it never boils over with bombastic speeches or cheer-inducing moments.

This is not a criticism.

The movie is as artistic a film as Anderson has made. It follows a disturbed and displaced former Navy man named Freddie Quell (Phoenix) who is drifting through life from liquor bottle to odd job in the first half dozen years or so after World War II. After getting drunk and stowing away on a ship, he’s awakened and meets a friendly and obviously powerful man named Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) who has borrowed the vessel to hold his daughter’s wedding. Dodd is the leader of the Cause, a quasi-religious, scientifically flawed movement which he claims is the path toward returning the human mind back to its original state of perfection. Much has been made of the film’s nods to the origins of Scientology and work of L. Ron Hubbard, which has no doubt helped the film’s publicity. There are definite parallels between Dodd and Hubbard, but The Master is not a history of Scientology. Maybe that movie will come at a later date… don’t expect Tom Cruise to star. In many respects, the film can be described more as a condemnation of blind faith, be it religious or otherwise. Mostly, however, it’s a love story– a strange, creepy love story.

I’ll avoid as many plot points as possible because the relationship between Phoenix and Hoffman is a fascinating one. At some points, Phoenix’s character is treated like a helpless pet who only needs to be trained. At others, Hoffman’s character welcomes Freddie like a son. It’s never explicitly stated what happened to Freddie that made him into such a mess, nor is Hoffman’s backstory and rise to power of a growing cult. The lack of answers makes for a rich viewing experience, and the sensational work of the two actors pulls you in and makes you want to know more. What is known is that each man fulfills something for the other. Dodd is a narcissist who loves adulation and thrives on those who look to him for help, so Freddie’s weak will and emotional nature make him a perfect pupil. Interestingly, without spoiling the details, weakness and anger are actually qualities they both share, particularly when Dodd’s methods are questioned.

Someone’s stellar work that may go slightly unnoticed due to the wonderful job of the two previously mentioned actors is Amy Adams, who portrays Hoffman’s wife, Peggy. A perfect example of how less is more, her character’s journey is a riveting one. At first shown as a doting wife and mother who has stars in her eyes, time goes by and shows what an important and formidable presence she brings to the Cause. She’s just as ambitious and committed as her husband. Adams once again shows what a talent she really is when provided with rich material (e.g. Junebug and Doubt).

This is Anderson’s first time working with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. and it is one hell of a collaboration. Used less and less since the 1960s, the two shot the movie on 65mm film, which makes for a rich and epic feast for the eyes. Every frame is so perfectly composed and thought out that certain scenes felt reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s fastidious style. As much as I love going to the movies, I rarely pontificate about needing to see a movie in the theater– cutting out high prices and crowds is understandable– but the visuals in The Master are very enriching on a large screen. And in another stroke of genius, Anderson continues his Punch Drunk Love/There Will Be Blood musical style and uses odd, off-putting sounds under many scenes that promote the feeling of dread and paranoia perfectly. Although unconventional, it’s a sumptuous score that complements rather than distracts from the stunning photography and top-notch acting.

I’ve anxiously awaited three films this year: CosmopolisThe Master and the yet-to-be-released Django UnchainedCosmopolis was a bit of a letdown, although distinctive and memorable. Django is still off in the distance, set to be released at Christmas time, so I was hoping The Master would hold me over. Now that I’ve seen it, I can confidently say there’s no way PTA’s newest classic in a career full of masterpieces won’t easily be one of my favorite films of 2012. I can’t call it my favorite of Anderson’s work because I’ve only seen it once, but its elusive, cryptic quality will make subsequent viewings a joy.

The Blu-ray better look stunning. Criterion Collection, do you hear me?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: