Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson released his most recent film, The Master, to largely positive notices in September, 2012. It seemed to have a polarizing effect that is likely to continue as the film potentially reaches a larger audience now that it’s available on Blu-ray. Though praised by many as a thought-provoking masterpiece, a smaller (but equally passionate) minority felt it was ultimately lacking in substance.
Much has been made about The Master being loosely based on the origins of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. The Weinstein Company, which distributed the film, chose to downplay any direct connection. While Anderson acknowledged that Hubbard was the inspiration for Lancaster Dodd, leader of the cult religion known as “The Cause” played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he also emphasized that his film was not intended to be a biopic. As for the divided reactions, some of that’s due to the oblique narrative, which doesn’t deliver easily digestible messages. After a straightforward first half, the film drifts into a kind of free-form stream of consciousness that defies any obvious interpretation.
It begins just after the end of WWII, with mentally unstable veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) seeking to reintegrate into society after his discharge from the Navy. Clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Quell is driven by an unnaturally high sex drive (his Rorschach test answers are hilariously single-minded) and fits of uncontrollable rage. He botches a gig as a department store portrait photographer by instigating a physical fight with a customer. He even screws up a job picking heads of cabbage after inadvertently poisoning a fellow worker with his dangerously toxic moonshine (he uses a variety of chemical ingredients, including paint thinner).
After stowing away on a yacht, he meets Dodd and quickly falls under the charismatic leader’s spell. He submits to psychological “processing” conducted by Dodd, designed to uncover a person’s source of trauma by “time travelling” to the subject’s past via memory exploration. Though he blindly embraces Dodd’s teachings, his violent behavior remains unchecked. As the plot loses forward momentum, we leisurely learn about Quell’s lost love, Doris (Madisen Beaty). We also see some of Dodd’s personal life, including his odd, sexually stagnant relationship with his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). There are a few highly compelling examples of Dodd’s inability to handle anyone questioning his ever-shifting concept for “The Cause” (which he believes can cure “some types” of leukemia).
As for the ongoing debate between the film’s supporters and detractors, I have to admit to falling somewhere in the middle. I suspect The Master is a film that rewards repeat viewings and my feelings about it may continue evolving once I’ve had a chance to revisit it. On the positive side, Phoenix and Hoffman are utterly captivating in their respective roles. This is screen acting of the highest order, with Phoenix fully inhabiting his hunched, squinty, tormented veteran. Hoffman ably demonstrates why Dodd is “the master,” a would-be messiah who is equal parts charming and threatening. While it’s easy to see The Master as a two-man show, some of the side characters add considerable intrigue, including Jesse Plemons as Val, Dodd’s skeptical but loyal son. Though we don’t spend much time with Dodd’s followers, Laura Dern makes her mark as Helen Sullivan (especially when she dares confront Dodd with a simple question).
On the other hand, during the second half I couldn’t help feeling that The Master was maybe a draft or two away from being production-ready. As much as there is to meditate on throughout the film, the end result is frustratingly hard to feel anything but ambivalence toward. I’m not talking about explaining away all the vague and mysterious character motivations with armchair psychologist’s clichés. Ambiguity is simply part and parcel of this project. But as the stories of Quell and Dodd advanced, I found myself caring less and less about either of them. Anderson tackles some weighty subject matter, but by the end it feels frustratingly weightless.
The Master was shot mostly on 65 mm film by Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. The 1080p transfer looks very good for most of the 138-minute running time, with a fine-grained, film-like appearance. The only troublesome aspect was mildly significant flicker, visible briefly during a few scenes. The most prominent was during the desert scene late in the film, where the blue sky shimmered and shifted unnaturally (not sure if this issue was inherent in the negative). The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is free of issues, though it’s not an especially ambitious mix. The score by Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead, his second collaboration with Anderson after There Will Be Blood) spills over into the surrounds and is the most important audio element after the dialogue.
As far as supplemental features are concerned, this isn’t a terribly extensive Blu-ray edition. The “Back Beyond” featurette is an interesting mix of deleted scenes and outtake footage, presented as a fully scored, 20-minute piece. It’s a unique alternative to a standard-issue, one-at-a-time sequence of alternate scenes. “Unguided Message” offers about eight minutes of raw production footage. A John Huston-directed documentary from 1946, Let There Be Light, is included. It deals with WWII veterans and PTSD. The film was instrumental in Anderson’s creation of Freddie Quell.
The Master is easy to recommend for the chance to see Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman disappear into their roles. I do wish Anderson had given them even more to sink their teeth into, especially in his conception of Lancaster Dodd. Maybe it’s impossible to truly know what makes a man like Dodd tick.