The 2013 Oscars are right around the corner. The months of September - December are battlegrounds for the heavyweights of film, with a few underdogs in there to keep it fresh. Every film that comes out during this time frame is either vying for some sort of Oscar, or the studio didn’t feel it was grand enough for summer, so they’ll just dump it here. All of this excludes Twilight of course.
The Master is one of those films people will be talking about during this season. It’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a director who continually develops quality films, to a great extent in some people’s eyes than Christopher Nolan. His filmography so far includes Boogie Nights - the movie you get to see Marky Mark with a fake penis; Punch Drunk Love - the first time anyone saw Adam Sandler act; Magnolia - the movie where Tom Cruise says “cock” about 40 times; and of course There Will Be Blood - the most recent Daniel Day Lewis Oscar winner. A wide array of films under his belt so far, I regret to inform, The Master doesn’t compare well.
Set in post-WWII America, Freddie (suitably played by Joaquin Phoenix) struggles to find work and cope with his massive alcoholism . He spends the first 30 minutes of the movie drinking, trying to get laid, and overall just creeping people out. I’ve never cared for Phoenix, in anything. He’s always struck me as a lazy actor, who felt that he deserved more than what he had, often times playing the “River” card. Even Gladiator I just couldn’t stomach his brashness, his cockiness, even when it was necessary for the role.
Here, Phoenix is unlike any of his other characters. He’s far more subdued, a little bit awkward, and 100% vulnerable. For the first time, I found myself actually appreciating his acting. Freddie is unable to hold a steady job, in the meanwhile building his own moonshine from various types of sensitive liquids, and in doing so unintentionally poisons a fellow coworker at a cabbage farm. On the run, he stows away on a vessel in the docks while the occupants party. It is here that he passes out and wakes to the sound of a woman. She leads him to meet The Master - exceptionally performed by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Hoffman is a PT Anderson mainstay - Punch Drunk Love, Boogie Nights, Magnolia - and he’s also a damn good actor. He’s never one to mail in his performances, and he doesn’t even consider doing that here. It’s 100% PSH as we all have come to expect from him. You realize off the bat that The Master likes Freddie almost instantly. For whatever reason, at the time, he enjoys his company without even knowing him, especially when no one - not even the audience - likes him. Freddie is invited to the Master’s daughter’s wedding, to be hosted on the ship, and he employs Freddie to make more of his tonic - a bottle of which the Master found on Freddie and subsequently drank.
Like a majority of PT Anderson’s films, a good portion of time is spent setting up the characters and their emotions. It’s the same thing here. Anderson lays all of the pieces out on the table - Amy Adam’s as The Master’s wife, a somewhat twisted individual herself, she desires to have their cause be fully realized. Exchanges between Adams and Hoffman is a highlight of the film as the question starts to boil in you “who is the real Master?” Adam’s spews rhetoric at Hoffman who obliges and rarely back talks his wife. The Master’s daughter, freshly married, is an attractive young woman whom Freddie takes a liking to and the feeling is reciprocated for awhile until his behavior becomes too erratic. The Master’s entourage is completed with his son-in-law and a Matt Damon look-a-like who you may or may not have seen in Breaking Bad shooting kids on bicycles.
Their cause is not a jab at Scientology just in case anyone was wondering, but you do get a sense of what perhaps it was like to be initiated into Scientology. Their beliefs are never fully explained, only bits you can piece together by the incidents. The Master has written a book. This book outlines all of their history. Where this all started is never disclosed, or how he was able to network without Facebook so quickly and reaching so many people. But the group does function like a cult, they move like a heard from place to place, and they all share in frivolous behavior. The addition to Freddie is disturbing to some. They don’t like his troublesome ways, and some feel uncomfortable around him. The belief is that he’ll change, because The Master will not give up on him.
The initiation of Freddie is where The Master soars. Anderson hammers it into your head just how ridiculous some of the beliefs are, but also how some are quite intelligent to anyone open to discussion on the topic. He does so, the same way a cult would brainwash you - multiple repeats of the same shot, the same process, until its in place. Unfortunately, Freddie never quite gets it. He flip flops back and forth on if he’s dedicated to the cause, or apathetic to it. He spends a majority of his time wrestling with his lost love Doris, a teenager he was planning to marry, but never went back to see. It’s also of note that Doris utters one of the best lines in Anderson’s films. It has little relevance to the movie, but it’s the exact quote that PSH states in Boogie Nights to Dirk Diggler, “Can I kiss you?” though with less creepiness.
The most intense portion of The Master comes with a full breakdown between The Master and Freddie. After being arrested for operating without a medical license, The Master is placed in prison. To defend him, Freddie attacks all of the police officers and ends up in the slammer as well. Here, the two share one of the best moments of The Master - a yelling match. Bickering between the bars, you get a sense of a relationship that is very twisted. Freddie’s outburst in the cell is also memorable for the fact that he destroys most of the props in the cell before banging his head against the underside of the bunk bed repeatedly. There’s a lot of “F yous” to be heard and it’s very intense, very riveting.
And that’s about where it stops. The Master is definitely a slow burner. It also houses some fantastic performances from all three of it’s leads. Regardless of my feelings towards Phoenix, he manages to pull of such an intense character with sincerity. The downside to The Master is potentially because of a comparison to his previous films. There Will Be Blood is by far his greatest achievement. The entire scope of Blood is too vast, and extremely epic compared to The Master. Whereas Daniel Plainview was brutal, and unforgiving, he had the difficult task of carrying the film from start to finish. The Master slips when it focuses less on the cause and more on the relationship between The Master and Freddie. By the time the film ends, one has to question what the purpose of the film was right from the start.
Drama was once referenced to by Alfred Hitchcock as “Life with all of the boring parts cut out.” That’s pretty appropriate for the most part in The Master, except that the boring parts are your life sometimes. Shot by shot, it’s still a great achievement for Anderson, but it’s focus on the relationship creates an unbalanced film and an extremely anticlimactic finish. To be quite honest, I was frustrated upon leaving The Master. In a way I felt cheated by the film, giving such an unsatisfying conclusion. It leaves many questions unanswered which for some could give you enjoyment for the film. Until you realize the questions left unanswered just aren’t that important.
The Master is an extremely intense drama for those who are willing to pay attention to it’s intricacies. It’s long and uneventful at times, but it’s wonderfully shot, extremely well acted, and has some moments of pure cinema bliss. Unfortunately it’s uneven in its narration, and trades legitimate plot progression for uncomfortable relationship psychology. It holds it’s own in regards to PT Anderson’s resume, but it falls low on the list and to me feels like his first real misstep.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language.
Runtime: 137 mins.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix; Price Carson; Mike Howard
Tagline: The Master
Memorable Movie Quote: "I believe, in your profession, it's called... 'Nostalgia'."
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Official Site: www.themasterfilm.com
Release Date: September 21, 2012
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: February 26, 2013
Synopsis: A 1950s-set drama centered on the relationship between a charismatic intellectual known as "the Master" whose faith-based organization begins to catch on in America, and a young drifter who becomes his right-hand man.
Available on Blu-ray - February 26, 2013
Screen Formats: 1.85:1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit)
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Two-disc set (1 BD, 1 DVD); Digital copy (as download); DVD copy
Region Encoding: A
Shot in 65mm, The Master’s 1080p transfer is a most soul-stirring experience. Strong blues and solid yellows mark this film with intensity. The film's slightly bronzed color palette damn near rivals a sunset and its black levels are solid. Fine detail is impeccable and there’s never a blemish in the details. Digital issues, including edge enhancement, noise and DNR don't seem to be an issue at all. The visuals demand and, with this release, earn your attention. No complaints in the audio department either, though the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is a dialogue-driven production, there are auditory punches from Jonny Greenwood's abstract score.
Interesting is one word that comes to mind with the supplemental material on The Master. Unnecessary is also another. Similar in spirit to the material and overall design of the previously released Anderson picture There Will Be Blood, The Master kicks off with the 20-minute "Back Beyond" which is essentially a handful of outtakes and additional scenes with music by Jonny Greenwood. A brief – without explanation – look behind the scenes is next. Teasers and Trailers follow that and last – but obviously the most important featurette – is "Let There Be Light", John Huston's 1946 documentary about WWII soldiers and their encounters with what we now call PTSD.
- Back Beyond (20 min)
- Unguided Message (8 min)
- Teasers & Trailers (17 min)
- Let There Be Light (58 min)