A challenging film that must be seen – especially in 70mm
The Master is a movie soaked in expectation. From the hopes hefted upon the film by fans of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson – eagerly awaiting a new masterpiece from the frustratingly methodical former protégé of Robert Altman – to the salacious, tabloid-fueled expectations of theological rubberneckers – eager to witness a deconstruction of Scientology, the hopes and fears projected upon The Master by an audience thirsting for fresh cinematic water cooler discussion are as thick and luscious as the mustache Phillip Seymour Hoffman sports in the film. Add in the anachronistic release strategy the film’s distributors have committed to – it’s extremely rare to see an art house film shot in 65mm and even rarer to see one released in 70mm this day and age – and The Master is a movie seemingly entering this world with the whole of Oscar season riding upon its sloped shoulders.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, an angry, sexually obsessed veteran who experiences extreme difficulty adjusting after being discharged from the Navy. Unable to hold down a steady job and continuously pushing the limits of what a human body can digest as he downs exotic cocktail after another – prepared with ingredients ranging from coconut milk to rocket fuel to photo chemicals to straight mouthwash – Freddie is headed on a path toward full-tilt self-destruction when he stows away on a boat currently occupied by Lancaster Dodd, a dapper, self-assured writer/doctor/topologist/philosopher played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
If Freddie Quell is the raw, unfettered manifestation of American emotion – angry without really understanding why he’s angry – Dodd is patience personified. The writer preaches a religion and mindset named The Cause. This belief system is based around the idea of total control over one’s emotions through hypnosis-induced trips through previous lives. By exploring the past lives of one’s eternal soul, Dodd teaches, a person can not only elevate themselves as a human being but also self-cure diseases both mental and physical. While Quell and Dodd may seem like diametrically opposed forces – doomed to negate the others’ contribution to society – it is through a shared love of Quell’s home-made cocktails and a childlike desire from Quell to understand Dodd’s teachings and protect the teacher, that the two men develop a deep and loving relationship.
The Master features an immaculate performance from Phoenix. As Quell, Phoenix completely transforms himself into a fully-fleshed out shell of a man – fueled by a burning energy deep within the confines of his soul but acting more often than not on fury-piloted cruise control. Phoenix’s transformation is eased by the actor’s extreme control over his physical performance. From his body language – slumped shoulders, restless arms and loping gait – to his animated facial expressions, Phoenix’s performance is hand-crafted by artisans. To watch Phoenix silently wrestle with his desires is to watch the actor and PTA painstakingly sketch a character by hand – every nervous twitch or curled lip seems as planned and purposeful as the set’s wallpaper or carpet patterns.
As Lancaster Dobb, a clear pastiche for L. Ron Hubbard, Philip Seymour Hoffman occasionally borders on caricature. In his rich, creamy performance, Hoffman emotes with the same bombastic overbearing nature of a “Saturday Night Live” spoof character. This is intentional. It is in the scenes where Dodd lets his guard down, loses his patience and unleashes loose the raw emotion that he strives so hard to keep in check that Hoffman shows what a skilled actor he is – capturing a performance within a performance. Dodd is a lot like Freddy Quell, except for the fact that he’s had more experience shaping his anger and boredom and hiding it behind a more socially acceptable mask. It’s when he takes that mask off and pitches fits to rival those of Quell’s, though, that the audience is clued in on how organic a transformation they have witnessed – one that reveals that Dodd’s anger has always been there in Hoffman’s performance, hiding just below the surface enough for audiences to barely register.
Rounding out the main cast is Amy Addams as Peggy Dodd, Lancaster’s controlling (and latest in a string) wife. Weary of Dodd’s relationship with Quell, Peggy seeks to keep Dodd on the path towards prophet that he has cultivated for himself and she refuses to let Quell’s riotous influence damage her husband’s legacy – even if that means forsaking her own identity. At first glance, Adams is a cypher – existing only to be a reflection of the men around her. As the film progresses, though, and you see the lengths Peggy is willing to go to in order to keep her man on a tight leash, you realize that Peggy is shaping the world around her a lot more than it is shaping her. Adams’ performance is not a showy role – and it is a testament to Adams that she realizes the function her character plays in the story and to chooses to perform within those limitations instead of withering underneath them.
The film is being released in limited capacities in 70mm. The format, a wider, higher-resolution film grain that allows more details to be packed into a single frame than 35mm or – dare I say it – even digital, may not seem like an obvious choice for a film like The Master. The shots of the ocean – lapping furiously at itself like Quell – and scenes in which a startling amount of clarity is simultaneously captured in both the film’s foreground and background look breathtaking, of course, but the real majesty comes in the format’s ability to capture the actor’s performances. So much of the film consists of long, steady shots on Phoenix and Hoffman as they flex their respective acting muscles – constantly pushing each other to up their ante and push the film further along the path of greatness that PTA set it on. In these scenes, the 70mm format perfectly captures every twinkle in Hoffman’s eyes and the rich inky blackness of Phoenix’s face as he sulks in the shadows of life.
In its narrative structure, The Master owes more to PTA’s There Will Be Blood than his earlier work. While Boogie Nights and Magnolia were structurally pretty straight-forward narratively, The Master is more of a raw, meandering portrait of Freddie Quell than any clearly defined story arc. There is growth and realization for Quell throughout The Master, to be sure, but PTA seems far more interested in exploring Quell’s place in the world he has been given than exploring any changes Quell makes to his world.
The Master will not be as embraced by mainstream audiences as Magnolia or Boogie Nights were nor will it leave as deeply entrenched a mark in the annals of American filmmaking as PTA’s masterful There Will Be Blood. The Master is a spectacularly dense film that is beautifully shot, wonderfully designed (the costumes and production design is amazing – at times the film perfectly captures the feel of a living vintage J.C. Penny catalog) and – most of all – masterfully acted. It is Phoenix’s role that will be remembered the most as it is truly a transformative achievement that deserves recognition. The Master is a challenging movie but for those willing to put in the time – and commit to more than one viewing – it is a movie challenge that must be undertaken for even the casual film buff.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson Notable Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern and Jesse Plemons
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.