Note: “The Master” is the first American film in the past two decades to shoot entirely on 70mm film. That is the way that Paul Thomas Anderson intended the audience to see the film, and that is the way you should see it. Personally, film pummels any type of digital print. I’d rather see a grainy film with cigarette burns than sit through a beautifully perfect digital copy.
“The Master” is an incredibly tough film to review considering the overall product may leave you unfulfilled. That being said, the performances and visuals are so incredible that it’s hard not to recommend the film. The words admire and ambitious come to mind because the film is on such a grand scale that I admired what Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to achieve. If you understand going in, that you will be watching a film that is much more character driven than plot driven, I feel that you will enjoy your experience. That, coupled with Johnny Greenwood’s masterful score, makes the film worth the price of admission.
Joaquin Phoenix delivers the best performance from an actor I’ve seen this year, and is the main reason to make the trek to the theatre. It’s the sequences where Paul Thomas Anderson is in close-up on Phoenix’s face, and no dialogue is being spoken, that you learn the most about this sick, twisted character. Those types of characters are always so fascinating because you learn so much about them in the moments where they don’t speak; i.e. Ryan Gosling’s character in “Drive.” It was the unpredictability, and the sick, twisted capabilities of his character that drive the film.
Many people are saying that “The Master” is a Scientology film, but that’s condensing this hugely epic vision down to a minuscule thought process. Sure, it contains elements that are similar to Scientology, but that’s not the film’s main focus. You can clearly compare Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard to Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). There’s a great article in The Daily Beast which breaks down twenty-two comparisons between the two people. Clearly, there are similarities but it’s not a Scientology film.
The focus is on this struggling man who’s looking for answers. The film opens and we meet Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Freddie fought in World War II, where he saw unimaginable horrors that completely tore him up inside. He lost contact with the woman of his dreams and now lives as a drifter. He has resorted to creating alcoholic concoctions that sometimes even contain paint thinners. He wanders his way on to a ship, looking for work, and is introduced to Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd is an author and the cult leader of a movement called “The Cause.” His purpose is to help people find meaning in their life, and bring the human being back to perfection. Dodd claims that we are not animals, but that we are spirits. He is joined by his wife, Peggy Dodd (played by Amy Adams), and a massive group of followers. Quell joins the movement and decides that he wants to get better. The question is whether or not he’s too far gone to be helped.
What’s interesting is that the film has the feel of a Paul Thomas Anderson film, yet it’s unlike anything he’s ever done or anything I’ve ever seen before. The film is beyond ambitious, and is on such an epic scale that it needs to be seen in a movie theatre. I unfortunately had to watch a digital print of the film, but I could still appreciate the 70mm aspect that Paul Thomas Anderson envisioned. The HD quality of the 70mm epicness can still be captured on the smaller screen, because the image is still on an insanely clear scale. To get the full effect, make sure you see it in a 70mm theatre.
Phoenix transforms masterfully on a physical and emotional level. He takes you to a crazy world where the unpredictable becomes the hook. That unpredictability is what makes the film worth watching. What will this character do next? Every time he entered the frame, I found myself freaking out inside because I had no clue what he was going to do.
I loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s use of every inch of the frame. My favorite example of this was one of the first meetings between Phoenix and Hoffman. Hoffman is wearing a red robe, and as the camera cuts back and forth between the conversation, you always see a red color on the left side of the screen when on the shot of Phoenix. It’s such a small detail but it showed how Hoffman commanded such a presence over Phoenix’s character. The color of red was so faint and just on the left side of the screen. There were just so many large and grand shots where you as the audience member had to decide where to look. You could almost fill in your own story.
The score, which is masterfully done by Johnny Greenwood (who also did “There Will be Blood”), added a perfect amount of tension and horror to this film. Greenwood’s interesting and unique sound give the film a great quirkiness.
“The Master” is a film that I feel everyone should see, but I feel that not everyone will like. Phoenix deserves an Academy Award nomination for his performance, and if the Oscars were to happen today, he should win.
I want to geek out really quick about Paul Thomas Anderson’s amazing tracking shots. One of my favorite shots of all time is from PTA’s “Boogie Nights” when William H. Macy catches his wife cheating on him. He sees his wife, leaves the room, goes to his car, grabs a gun, walks back in, shoots his wife and the cheating man and then kills himself. That is all done in one shot. I just love the use of the moving camera, and allowing the action to guide us without multiple cuts. “The Master” receives a 4 out of 5 stars in my book.
If you live in the DC area, you can see “The Master” in glorious 70mm at the AFI theatre in Silver Spring. If you’re in Los Angeles it’s at the ArcLight Cinerama Dome and if you’re in New York try City Cinemas Village East.