The Master, 2012.
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Amy Adams, Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Dern, Rami Malek, Jesse Plemons and Kevin J. O’Connor.
A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.
When a film maker with the track record of Paul Thomas Anderson releases a new film, the expectations are high and rightly so, for Anderson is one of the last American film makers who is still directing at a level comparable with the New Hollywood generation at their peak. Anderson’s masterpiece There Will Be Blood is one of the best American films of the last 25 years, and will be placed in the same echelons as the best work from Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Sidney Lumet when it is of an age to be described as a ‘classic’.
Released five years after There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s latest is equal to anything he has made in terms of pure cinematic craftsmanship. As both writer and director Anderson does not waste a scene, line, or single shot in telling this story of a wayward man who is brought in by a group of people who follow the word and beliefs of their leader, or ‘master’. For the sheer beauty of the camerawork and production design, The Master is a thing of perfection, the likes of which are so seldom seen at a cinema anymore; the close ups of the actors faces which so often take centre stage are hypnotic as they linger on the screen for an uncomfortable time, encouraging the audience to look deeper into the eyes, the mouth, the expressions which the actors so perfectly portray.
From the very first shot of the sea and its water being churned by a World War II Navy boat, The Master remains an edgy and unpredictable film, like all of Anderson’s previous work. The film’s tone and directorial style is aligned more with There Will Be Blood than his previous work with the deep black colours, the scenes of little dialogue, and the Jonny Greenwood score which haunts each scene, and it carries with it several of Anderson’s obsessive themes. Each film has a character with an uncontrollable rage within them and characters trying to get their piece of the American dream in various ways; be it Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights who uses his ‘talent’ to make films, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood who wants to succeed and for all others to fail at any cost, or poor old Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love who thinks he’s found a loophole with an airline ticket promotion on the back of dessert boxes.
Moreover, all of Anderson’s films feature a substitute father figure for a wayward son and The Master shows this quasi-relationship at its most strained. Freddie Quall (Joaquin Phoenix) is a deeply disturbed man before the film begins but his misplaced rage has no source; Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the leader of a group (or cult) whose teachings are followed and celebrated as the group gradually grows bigger and his writing forms two books. It is, however, within the characters relations that the film is slightly less sensational; as Freddie and Lancaster’s patriarchal relationship grows it is clear that (of course) Lancaster’s teachings hold no evidence and Freddie knows this but at last has found someone willing to accept him and Lancaster has found a subject whom he can experiment on. The problem is that nothing is ever at stake for Freddie, and he can come and go as he pleases; there is no danger or threat in the film because Freddie is so unlikable rather than pitiful. By the conclusion, Freddie has changed slightly but remains the loner he always was and Lancaster goes on regardless and although both Freddie and Lancaster’s individual stories are interesting, when they are brought together it does not have the dramatic impact which is perhaps hinted at in the film’s first half. This is not an emotionally impactful film and that is its only fault.
The intensity of the story is brought to life by the acting tour de force of the film’s three main leads and is essential viewing for anyone who loves watching actors becoming a character, not just putting on a costume and shouting lines of dialogue. Joaquin Phoenix, for many years considered by this reviewer to be one of, if not the, best actor of his generation, gives a performance which very few other actors could match with his physical awkwardness, his confused and pain-ridden face, and an explosive violence and aggression which seem so natural to Freddie and never forced or clichéd. In contrast, Philip Seymour Hoffman is every bit the leader and manipulative master of that the film’s title suggests; he is powerful and well spoken but he is also a raged-filled man and the scene where he snaps at a follower who questions his new book is frightening. When these two actors come together for Freddie’s first ‘session’, The Master gives us the year’s most powerful and intense cinematic scene. It is a sheer joy to watch the performances match the craftsmanship of the film making.
As a side note, this review is of a 70mm presentation of The Master shown at the only cinema in the UK to screen it in its original format, not a 35mm blow up or a digital version. The very fact that Anderson shot The Master on 65mm (to be projected in 70mm) is reason enough to see it as he intended it to be seen, but it also takes you back to a time when film was shown on film, through a projector and with the ‘burn marks’ appearing every so often as a reminder of the projecting process and as a reminder today that film is not a dead format and digital is not the only medium despite is ever-growing popularity.
In 70mm, The Master is vibrant and textural with its film grain and deep blacks and crisp blues as clear as any hi-def digital screening could claim to be. The film is full of close up and faces which fill the screen and these need to be seen in as clear detail as possible and the reason why it was shot in such an expensive format is realised once it is shown on the big screen. This level of detail cannot be captured when the film is presented in any other way; the detail will be lost in the multiplexes that do not have the projectors to show The Master the way in which it deserves to be seen. The last film to use the format was Hamlet sixteen years ago and is famed for its use by David Lean for the sweeping landscapes in Lawrence of Arabia and by Ron Howard for Far and Away. The Master, then, seems an odd choice for such a technical decision on Anderson’s part and There Will Be Blood would appear to be the much more suited film in terms of scope and size. Perhaps Anderson thought this could be the last chance he’ll have to make a film and have it presented in 70mm especially, if his next film isn’t for another five years.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★