Judge Gordon Sullivan warns this is not a Doctor Who anniversary film.
Our review of The Master, published September 27th, 2002, is also available.
"Man is not an animal."—Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman)
Perhaps only Terrance Malick as demonstrated his mastery of the cinematic form in as few movies as Paul Thomas Anderson. With Hard Eight, Anderson demonstrated his potential, and went on to live up to it with a pair of twisty ensemble dramas (Boogie Nights and Magnolia). As if to keep from being typecast as the director of these kind of knotty films, Anderson recruited the unlikely Adam Sandler for Punch Drunk Love, a romantic comedy that owed as much to experimental cinema as it did to a tradition of boy-meets-girl films. There Will be Blood kept the baroque emotional heights of his earlier work but pared down the cast to a more manageable number. When word started circulating that his next film would be a fictionalized exploration of the birth of Scientology, it was met with a bit of skepticism. That skepticism is warranted, as P.T. Anderson's take on the workings of a cult is a beguiling character study with no obvious take-away. With that said, it's also unquestionably a masterpiece, a view the near-perfect The Master (Blu-ray) supports.
Facts of the Case
The film opens on the eve of V-J day, and Navy man Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, Quills) immediately celebrates with some clandestine (and homemade) hooch. He soon transitions into civilian life, but it's far from smooth. Job after job fails due to his violent outbursts and excessive drinking. When he whips up a particularly bad batch that nearly kills a fellow migrant worker he's run off and seeks solace on board a yacht. The yacht is owned by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Boogie Nights), a charismatic (and rich) leader of a group called the Cause. Something about Freddie draws him to Dodd (and vice versa) and the rest of the film follows their unlikely friendship as they promote the Cause by means fair and foul.
Unlike most films, The Master does not seem designed to please audiences. There are no clever "ah ha!" moments of narrative revelation, no emotional climax, and no neat resolution to a predetermined set of problems. No, The Master just seems to be there, and the brute fact of its existence lends it a gravity that few films can match. It may be more useful to compare it to the Grand Canyon than another film. Both are huge, and expansive and while beautiful perhaps lack a point. Or, if there's a point, it's not one that can be grasped the way we can usually grasp the point of a story.
What's undeniable about The Master is that it houses great performances. Anderson has always known how to deal with actors, launching and reviving careers with apparent ease. Here Joaquin Phoenix returns from the bizarre experiment that was I'm Still Here and is transformed. His Freddie is all nervous energy and the kind of intensity that must have been hard to maintain. We learn very little about Freddie's life, but with Phoenix embodying his fear and anxiety in so many physical ways we don't need to learn why he's so haunted. His opposite is Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd. He's all charm and charisma, but the same wild, haunted quality comes through. It's just that Dodd has chosen to hide his problems in a very different way than Freddie. Though it's not as obviously transformative as Pheonix's turn, Hoffman's is beautifully controlled fury at times. Acting slightly in the shadow of these two titans is Amy Adams, who's performance is in many ways more impressive for not being so obviously titanic. Her character is an almost too-perfect 1950s stereotype. She supports her man, raises the kids, and keeps everything running smoothly with a fresh faced innocence. That innocence, however, hides a woman who's willing to do whatever is necessary to support her husband.
The other undeniable fact about The Master is that it is a gorgeous example of cinematic art. Every shot is gorgeously lit, perfectly framed, and beautiful to look at. From the roiling Pacific that opens the film to shots of Freddie riding a motorcycle in the desert, Anderson fills his movie with engaging imagery that seems to contrast with the tumultuous lives of his characters. The camera is also rarely static, and the moving shots make the film itself more emotionally moving. Even if viewers find themselves unable to engage with the characters on an emotional level, the 137 minutes of The Master are chock full of things that are wonderful to look at.
Of course one of the most publicized things about The Master is that it's the first fiction film since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet to be shot in 65mm and released in 70mm prints. Less well-known is the fact that Anderson refused to allow any digital post-processing on the film; every aspect of the look of the finished film was achieved photochemically. All this leads up to me saying that The Master (Blu-ray) is essentially perfect. Presented in a 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer, the rich detail in the 65mm imagery is stunning, especially in faces and the fine details of clothing. I could probably put the churning water that opens the film on a loop and watch it for hours it's so beautiful. Colors tend to skew warm, but that's the result of the cinematography, not the transfer. Black levels are consistent and deep as well. There's also no digital artefacting either or compression hiccups. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly impressive. Despite Pheonix's sometimes mumbly delivery dialogue is always clean and clear out of the center. Johnny Greenwood's score envelops the listen much of the time, offering both a wide sonic field and subtle ambience.
Extras start with a 20-minute collection of deleted scenes that have been edited together to create a mini-feature. There's also 9 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from the film's production. It's pretty raw footage but gives a good picture of what happened behind the camera. Nine different teasers and trailers also accompany the film. It must have been a nightmare to market, and the diversity of these presentations speaks to that fact. Finally, the disc includes a John Ford documentary from World War II about veterans suffering from PTSD (as we call it now). It was an inspiration for the film, and its inclusion here is appreciated (even if it's a public domain version that isn't technically very solid).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While it's on, The Master is utterly engrossing, whether for the brilliant performances or the beautiful images, when all is said and done I don't know what to make of the film. It feels composed of a series of scenes rather than a narrative whole. There's a sometimes frustrating lack of specifics as well. We don't learn that much about the Cause or anyone's background. That can make it hard to care much about the characters for some viewers. There's also a bit of nudity that doesn't seem obvious from the plot description, and this too might alienate some viewers.
The Master is likely to be a divisive film for most viewers. It's undoubtedly gorgeous and well-acted, but many viewers might not find that to be satisfying enough to warrant a two-hour investment. With that said, it shows a comprehensive command of cinema, and its reputation will only grow in the years to come. Part of the reason it will continue to find an audience is this amazing Blu-ray. The presentation is technically perfect, and the extras are informative. Worth at least a rental for fans of the actors or Anderson.
Impossible to master, but not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• Deleted Scenes
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