John Ary here with a look at Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a slow-moving film that can be difficult at times to watch, but well worth the price of admission. The cinematography is stunning, especially in the 70mm format. The music and sound design are exquisite. And Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman bring their A-game. Just a word of warning though.... If you’re hoping to witness broad character arcs, any kind of exciting action scenes or meet characters that you like and root for, temper down your expectations.
We spend the first 40 minutes of the film getting to know Freddie Quell, an outcast with a drinking problem. Freddie doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, oblivious of normal social conventions and slightly brain damaged. He stumbles into the flock of Lancaster Dodd, a man who claims that he can unlock the memories of your past lives and is on the cusp of discovering the secrets of man’s trillion year history. The two form an unlikely friendship that bucks normal conventions and their own core beliefs.
I found myself put off by The Master in the first half of the film, finding little to like about Freddie. Joaquin’s performance is physical, mesmorizing and heartbreaking, but the protagonist he plays seems like such an awful human being, its difficult to find much reason to care about his plight or even hope his storyline meets with a happy outcome. He’s a rascal in the highest regard. It wasn’t until he forms a deeper bond with Lancaster Dodd that we get the pleasure of seeing both characters exposed. Anderson creates palpable tension in scenes where the characters have their beliefs challenged. Pushing these two men beyond their comfort zone creates verbal explosions, childish tantrums and somehow deepens their bond. With that said, it at no time feels like we reach any kind of resolution with these characters. Their thoughts about the world they inhabit and each other seem unchanged by the end of the film. Anderson puts these men under stress more to unveil their true character than propel them through the narrative.
If I had to summarize the style of Paul Thomas Anderson’s storytelling for this film in one word it would be “subtle.” The actors portray more information through their facial expressions and body language than actual words. The camera pines over the faces of the characters, capturing every facial tick, solitary glance and errant tear. It's these moments, when our subjects drop their guard to expose their true thoughts, motivations and desires that the brilliant cinematography provides loving portraits of their faces, constantly daring you to intimately stare into their eyes. It can be uncomfortable to watch, but usually impossible to look away.
This film wants nothing more from you than to fixate on its characters, with the plot taking a back seat. While I appreciate the filmmaker's approach, at times I felt like I was waiting for something more. Several of Freddy’s shenanaggins from earlier in the film, tend to replay themselves over and over. With the exception of a few scenes, we are rarely surprised by the the actions of the characters. They all stay on a steady course, playing their roles through to fruition without a pause or second thought.
If you have the chance, please see it in 70mm. The colors and depth of the celluloid are stunning, I'm sure creating a palpable difference between its digital counterpart. Also the score by Jonny Greenwood gives the film a beautiful powerful resonance. From a technical standpoint The Master is a triumph.
The biggest compliment I can give to the film though is this: Don’t go see it alone as it demands a conversation afterwards. Paul Thomas Anderson never fully exposes his characters, always holding back just a little for you to form your own interpretations. This is the kind of movie that is sure to spark some lively debates afterwards.