The Master [Blu-Ray]
Director : Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay : Paul Thomas Anderson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), Amy Adams (Peggy Dodd), Laura Dern (Helen Sullivan), Ambyr Childers (Elizabeth Dodd), Jesse Plemons (Val Dodd), Madisen Beaty (Doris Solstad), Rami Malek (Clark)
There is no question—none at all, in my mind at least—that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a magnificently ambitious film. The first feature production to be shot in 65mm since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996, it mixes exquisite period recreation of the post-World War II Eisenhower years with sublime visual grandeur and larger-than-life characters battling each other and themselves physically and metaphysically. There are plenty of questions, however, regarding what the film, exactly, is about. Is it an essay on human conflict? A biting depiction of postwar malaise? A sharp-edged character study of charismatic charlatanism? How about all of the above? And perhaps none—enigmatic to the end.
The majority of the film takes place in the years immediately after World War II, where we are introduced to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in his first film role after his multi-year performance art stunt that culminated in the 2010 prankish pseudo-documentary I’m Still Here). Freddie is a Navy veteran whose wartime experiences and loss of his pre-war sweetheart have left him a damaged shell of a man. Phoenix, who slumps his weight-deprived body, twists his face, and employs a garbled lisp, provides the kind of reach-deep Method performance that would impress, if not astound, both Marlon Brando and James Dean; it’s a fully realized, intensely physical portrayal of spiritual and psychological damage, such that we don’t even need to hear his perverse responses to Rorschach ink blots to know just how addled he is. His psychological impairments are exacerbated by his alcoholism, which he satiates with homemade concoctions made from whatever he has on hand, whether it be rubbing alcohol or darkroom chemicals.
At a particularly low point in his life around 1950, Freddie drunkenly stumbles onto a yacht that is commandeered by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-styled “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher” who has founded a new movement called “The Cause,” in which he claims to help people via mental time travel produced by a hypnosis-like intervention known as “processing.” Sensing some connection between them (he notes that they are both “hopelessly inquisitive” men), Dodd takes Freddie in and makes him his “protégé and guinea pig,” an offer that Freddie accepts if only because he has nowhere else to go and perhaps craves some sense of order in his otherwise disordered and meaningless existence. At this point Dodd already had a substantial following, some of whom are wealthy benefactors whose social and monetary prestige he borrows in order to bolster the appearance of The Cause. Portrayed with mesmerizing intensity by Hoffman in his fifth collaboration with Anderson, Dodd is well-spoken and charismatic, a born leader who has a way of telling people what they want to hear when they want to hear it; there is no real way of knowing how much he believes his own rhetoric. As compelling as he is, Dodd does not work alone, and The Cause is aided in no small part by his constantly pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams), whose seemingly passive presence by his side belies her stern, Lady Macbeth-like control behind the scenes.
Anderson, who as always both wrote and directed, establishes Freddie Quells and Lancaster Dodd as simultaneous opposites and twisted reflections of each other. Dodd’s carefully manicured appearance and decorum, which has a kind of softness to it, are very much the opposite of Freddie’s lean, hard, borderline grotesque physical appearance and volcanic eruptions of anger and violence, which we see early on when he pointlessly provokes a man into a fight while working as a photographer in a department store. Yet, beneath his controlled exterior and haughty bromides, Dodd is also a volcano waiting to erupt, and some of the film’s most bracing moments occur when that internal violence ruptures the surface, particularly in a scene at a party in which a doubter heckles him with questions about his methods and late in the film when his primary benefactor (Laura Dern) has the temerity to ask why he changed a crucial word in his newly published Cause manual. Similarly, both men are clearly seeking control and they both hunger for power, the primary difference being that Dodd has found an effective means of channeling and fueling his desires while Freddie languishes and grasps. Anderson finds a perfect visual metaphor for their simultaneous opposition and connection in a single shot in which Freddie and Dodd are in prison cells next to each other, the former raging manically on the lefthand side of the screen while the latter stands placidly on the righthand side. The composition conveys not the true essence of the two men, but rather how they handle their shared rage.
While Dodd is clearly modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, The Master is not particularly interesting as a veiled depiction of that much-disputed quasi-religious movement (much as Citizen Kane does not derive its primary powers from its parallels with media baron William Randolph Hearst). Rather, Anderson’s film is provocative in its depiction of how leaders and followers feed on and feed off each other. In an age in which celebrity is prized above virtually all else, The Master holds a disturbing mirror up to our desire for easy answers and charismatic (but possibly empty) leaders. Anderson is resolute in refusing to make virtually anything in The Master clear or transparent, and in its ambiguity and evasiveness some will detect a make-sense-of-it-yourself masterpiece while others will simply find it frustrating. The film has a dreamlike aura—much like Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood (2007), with which it also shares a fascination with interpersonal conflict taken to almost metaphysical levels and obsessive characters who dominate the spaces around them—and it often throws you for a loop with purposeful elisions and jumps in time and perspective, such as a party scene in which all of the women are suddenly naked (a fantasy projection of Freddie’s, perhaps, or did Dodd somehow convince all the women to strip off their clothes?).
Although Anderson first gained notice as a Robert Altman-like purveyor of wide-ranging, multi-character narratives in Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999), ever since his Adam Sandler anti-comedy Punch-Drunk Love (2002) he has gravitated more and more toward the kind of austere formalism one might associate with Stanley Kubrick or even Andrei Tarkovsky. The cinematography in The Master by Francis Ford Coppola regular Mihai Malaimare Jr. (this being the first film in which Anderson has not worked with Robert Elswit) is relentlessly stunning, alternating between painterly vistas and intense close-ups. The saturation of the colors and the period detail suggest the ’50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, although it is clear that Anderson, despite channeling so many cinematic luminaries, is still working on his own wavelength. The great critic Pauline Kael always insisted that she never needed to see a film twice, that the first viewing was the true experience that revealed the film in as much as it should be revealed, and The Master certainly provides a truly sublime experience the first time around, although it also remains strangely distant, as if just out of reach. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t itching to return to it, to see how it might unfold differently during multiple viewings. It’s a compelling, beautiful, troubling puzzle of a film.
|The Master Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy|
|Audio||English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround|
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 26, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The Master looks superb on Blu-Ray. Given that it was shot primarily on 65mm film, which allows for almost twice as much resolution and visual information as conventional 35mm film, there was a lot to work with in making the 1080p high-def transfer, which I assume was sourced from the 4K digital files used in most theatrical presentations. The film is framed, as it was theatrically, at 1.85:1, which is an interesting decision given that 65mm’s native aspect ratio is 2.20:1 and all of Anderson’s previously films were shot in the ’Scope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Colors are beautifully rendered, maintaining the same deeply saturated intensities that I remember seeing in the theater (the overall hue of the film leans a bit toward teal, which I imagine was intentional to give it a slightly retro vibe). The numerous close-ups reveal an impressive level of detail that still maintains evidence of film grain, and the image as a whole conveys a sense of real depth and dimensionality. (Interestingly, if you look closely you can sometimes tell which scenes were shot on 35mm because the film grain becomes much more apparent, for example, in the shot where Freddie is running across the field after being chased out of the farming village.) Blacks are dark and consistent, and shadow detail is first-rate. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel soundtrack is nicely balanced, keeping the film’s dialogue crisp and clean in the front soundstage while using the surround channels for environmental immersion and to give Jonny Greenwood’s unconventional musical score plenty of room to do its work.|
|The coolest supplement on The Master Blu-Ray is John Huston’s hour-long 1946 documentary Let There Be Light, which he produced for the U.S. military (although the government suppressed it for three decades) to document the psychiatric treatment of American soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following their combat experiences in World War II. Paul Thomas Anderson has cited the film as a major inspiration for The Master, but it is more than compelling in its own right. Other supplements include 20 minutes of outtakes and additional scenes (many of which take place when Freddie was still in the Navy) with music by Jonny Greenwood, 8 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, and nine theatrical trailers and teasers.|
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