Paul Thomas Anderson might go down as one of the most important filmmakers of all-time. His work on films such as There Will Be Blood or Magnolia has ensured him a spot on many critics best directors list. His latest experimental character study, The Master, will surely go down as his most challenging film yet as he attempts to tell a troubling story about a lost Navy man who finds a glimpse of hope in a cult. The Master isn’t PTA’s best film, but it’s clearly one that is to be commended for its performances and visuals.
Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Navy man that’s been lost at sea for as long as he can remember. He’s got a slight obsession with sex and he continues to drink himself silly by way of homemade alcohol. His life is a complex one, full of loneliness and regret, but most of all searching for something or someone to help set him on the right path.
He runs into Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and almost immediately he forms a powerful relationship with Lancaster that can almost be compared to the feeling that two people get when they’ve found their soul-mates. Lancaster and Freddie share so much, while at the same time couldn’t be any more different from each other.
Freddie is explosive and unpredictable, often lashing out at anyone that disagrees with him or looks at him funny, while Lancaster is a patient gentleman that believes strongly in his cult The Cause, but also believes in peacefully preaching.
As the story progresses both of their true intentions seep out, by way of Paul Thomas Anderson’s intricate writing and stimulating direction. Much has been said about PTA’s choice to shoot the film mostly on 65mm and the result is a splendid work of art that looks extraordinary and very much a piece of the era. The Master mostly takes place indoors and in small spaces, but PTA uses the grand format to help give the film much-needed scope and room to explore the characters and their imperfections, dreams, desires and breaking points.
The Master isn’t something you can simply sit down and watch and then go about your day. It requires the viewer to second-guess every single notion, motive and reveal. You’re not just analyzing the actual characters interacting on screen, but also the way a scene is presented. The movement and placement of the camera is just as important as Jonny Greenwood’s score or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s dominating performance.
With Paul Thomas Anderson everything has a purpose and that purpose is constantly in motion from beginning to middle to end. Some might not like PTA’s experimental direction that he takes The Master in, but most should be able to appreciate something about the film.
The story left me feeling cold and almost uninterested in the interactions between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, but right as I was about to give up on the film their performances managed to suck me back in and keep me going. It wasn’t that I cared much about Freddie or Lancaster as characters moving a story through its various beats. But I did care about them as people. People that appear to be civilized and well-mannered, but are really just as violent and animalistic as the people that they despise so much.
The Master might not have been the right film for PTA to follow up There Will Be Blood with, but it’s clearly something that’s been brewing in him for a while and I’m glad that he was able to make it the way he wanted, without much of any studio interaction. Not many people can make the films PTA makes and it’s always a treat to be able to dive into one of his film’s without a single expectation.
The Master was transferred to Blu-ray without using a digital intermediate at all. The film, which was shot on 65mm and displayed in select cinemas on 70mm projectors, looks striking, with a fine-layered grain structure that only helps enhance the crisp and remarkable photography on display. I know I’ve been spoiled lately with a lot of good-looking Blu-Ray releases, but The Master might just be one of the best-looking films that I’ve ever watched on the format since I upgraded to the HD world so many years ago.
PTA and his cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. make the very best of each and every scene, highlighting the warm colors while accenting the film’s various locations that range from desert-like settings to the rough and choppy waters of the ocean. Everything about The Master‘s 1080 Blu-Ray transfer is perfect and the only way it would get any better is if we could see its 65mm negative, which would be considered 8k resolution.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is mostly dominated by Jonny Greenwood’s intriguing score. Music flows in and out of all channels during any given scene, which helps make the entire film feel like one big dream-like sequence. Dialogue is never muffled or muted and natural sounds play a big part of the film’s general flow, so don’t be surprised if you hear the loud crashing of waves overpowering Greenwood’s composed music.
Here’s a list of special features included:
- Back Beyond: Outtakes, Additional Scenes; Music by Jonny Greenwood (HD): A collection of unused or altered shots complete with additional scores by Greenwood. This 20-minute piece makes for its own little short film, while also playing with the same tone and structure as the finished film.
- Teasers/Trailers (HD)
- Unguided Message: 8 Minute Short; Behind the Scenes (SD)
- Let There Be Light (SD): John Huston’s documentary about WWII veterans that inspired PTA to go on and make The Master. You can definitely see the influence.
- DVD Copy
- Digital Copy
The Master is a difficult film to critique, because it’s such a powerful piece of work that just might not click with every single member of the audience. And that doesn’t make it a bad film or even a weak one, but it does make it one of PTA’s lesser-loved films that many will ignore completely or embrace ignorantly.
I enjoyed a great deal of it, particularly the performances, which were anchored down by Amy Adams, elevated by Philip Seymour Hoffman and knocked out of the park by Joaquin Phoenix. I also found the film to be a masterfully shot by PTA and his cinematographer and I think the fact that they shot it all on film and on 65mm is a statement in and of itself. I’d watch the film in a heartbeat on the big screen again if I was given a chance, even if I felt that the story sort of meanders off into a conclusion that’s not as satisfying as one might have hoped for.
The Blu-Ray comes with a fair assortment of bonus material, ranging from a full-fledged documentary to a collection of unseen footage and trailers that will please any PTA fans.
Just know before you buy that this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film. He likes to challenge his viewers and present characters and stories that aren’t the easiest to digest or the quickest to unfold. His films are like a fine wine, proving with age and patience that they’re almost always worth the wait.
Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is a challenging film, like most of his work. One that evokes a spellbinding performance by Joaquin Phoenix that combined with the gorgeous cinematography makes for a compelling, yet sometimes cold character study. It's not his masterpiece, but it's a film that requires discussion after multiple viewings.