I finally saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master today. It’s Anderson’s first film since 2008’s There Will Be Blood in which he directed Daniel Day Lewis to an Oscar for Best Actor. The Master was a sensation even before it opened the Venice Film Festival and had a gala screening at the Toronto International Film Festival since Harvey and The Weinstein Company had staged sneak peeks all over the country at old movie palaces, selling out in every city, creating internet buzz for what is essentially an independent, art-house film. When it opened in New York and LA, it set per screen box office records. What I had heard about the film before going in was largely positive. Audiences at TIFF gave the film standing ovations, even as they left the theater scratching their heads. What I was reading was that a lot of people have had trouble processing the film and felt that they needed a second viewing before they could articulate their thoughts.
Personally, I think those people are overthinking it.
One of the most anticipated films of the year, The Master is a 1950s-set drama centered on the relationship between a charismatic intellectual known as “the Master”, played by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose faith-based organization (“The Cause”) begins to catch on in America, and a young drifter who becomes his right-hand man. The drifter is played by Joaquin Phoenix.
Visually it’s stunning, shot in 70mm. The last film shot in that format was Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet from 1996. (A film I adore by the way. You can finally get it on dvd and if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly, although you have truly missed out by not seeing it in all of its Technicolor splendor on the big screen.) The cinematography, by Mihai Malaimare, Jr., is beautiful when it uses natural landscapes and the continued use of flowing water but it is the meticulous attention to period detail that sticks out for me. In the photography and lighting as well as the costumes and the production design.
Several observers have noticed parallels between the story of the Master and his Cause, and the founding of Scientology by L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson and his people deny that this is some sort of Scientology allegory. It’s also not the first time Anderson has delved into the subject of charismatic pseudo-religious leaders and the effects on their followers, after Magnolia, which ironically, reignited the career of one of the most famous Scientologists, Tom Cruise. So it’s even more ironic that Cruise is reportedly unhappy with The Master. Scientologist #1 has “issues” with the film, according to the New York Post, after having recently screened the finished product. Whether that’s true or not is anyone’s guess at this point since The Post doesn’t actually go into any detail. It could just be a publicity stunt. Both the Anderson and Cruise camps have since denied that Cruise has any problem with the film.
Personally, I don’t think that there can be any doubt that this film is based on Scientology, although I don’t know enough about the particulars of that organization to know what if anything is literal. Anderson has stated that his main influence was John Huston’s government-sponsored documentary from 1946, Let There Be Light, about returning WWII vets with PTSD. The camera films them from their induction through to their eventual ‘cure’ and final departure back into mainstream America. Once completed the government banned it for 30 years. There is a scene in the beginning of The Master that would seem to have been lifted from this film.
I think both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix gave exceptional, understated performances. There is not a single scene in the film in which one or the other, if not both, is on screen. Their final scene together is, as it should be, the most powerful. It consists of closeups on the two men’s faces and it had me holding my breath, watching the oh-so-subtle changes taking place. Phoenix’s characterization is almost entirely physical. He conveys nearly everything we need to know about his character from the way he walks, carries himself, even the way he holds his mouth when he speaks.
Both he and Hoffman will both, almost certainly, be nominated for Best Actor Oscars (thus canceling out both. In another bit of irony, that will probably leave the way clear for Daniel Day Lewis once more.) Jeremy Renner was originally cast, but they lost him when the financing took years to put together. Luckily, Phoenix had just gotten off of the Crazy Train and was available. As much as I liked Phoenix, I’m curious about what Renner’s take on the character of Freddie Quell would have been.
Amy Adams, who plays “the Master’s” fertile third wife (she’s first seen with a toddler on her lap and is pregnant through most of the film), delivers another fine performance and is the backbone of the film. She plays perky so well that it is easy to underestimate her. A few scenes with closeups of her steely blue eyes and one begins to wonder just who “The Master” of the title actually is.
The performances are all amazing. but ultimately? There’s no “there” there.
The Master is two hours and sixteen minutes of people moving along a timeline, but to what end? I think that’s the point. There is no end, because our journeys are never ending. One of the chief tenets of “The Cause” and not coincidentally of Scientology, is that we’ve all been here before, we’ll be here again.
The bottom line is that I think The Master will probably be nominated for Best Picture because the Academy won’t understand it, so they’ll think it must be art and they should recognize it. It won’t win, however, for the same reason: It’s art and they won’t understand it.