Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. A pit bull, a snake oil salesman, and a big-breasted woman walk into a bar…
Somewhere across the Pacific Ocean, a rowdy crew of Navy sailors overtakes a shoreline. They let off steam, fight each other, smoke, drink, and even forge a makeshift woman from the coastal terrain to satiate their lustful desires. It's here where we find our protagonist resting -- his head softly nestled against a sandy bosom, perfectly at ease and content. Setting the mood and thematic backbone for what follows, this gently vulgar image goes on to construct the very core of director Paul Thomas Anderson's deceptively ponderous excursion into motion picture ambiguity. A challenging, dense, and deliberately vague examination of human conditioning, 'The Master' is both implicitly unknowable and perhaps surprisingly straightforward -- cementing itself as one of the year's most divisive releases.
After returning home from his tour of duty, a traumatized WWII veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), struggles to readjust to civilian life. When he meets the enigmatic spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he suddenly finds himself in the midst of a developing cult. As the mysterious guru takes a liking to Freddie, the troubled former sailor tries to open up to the movement's philosophies -- which include the existence of past lives and subconscious time travel. Though Dodd is determined to heal the disturbed man of his primitive impulses and emotional pain, it's implied that Freddie may already be devoted to another master altogether.
Early talk of the film's developing script made much of the story's potentially controversial parallels to Scientology. While L. Ron Hubbard is the clear inspiration for Hoffman's character, the resulting narrative is actually pretty far removed from what those initial rumblings implied. Though still integral to the movie's plot and themes, the film really isn't about the cult. Instead, this is largely Freddie's story, and through his journey, Anderson seeks to examine humanity's dueling nature, the weighty distress of combat trauma, and the difficult sustainability of internal change.
Are we more than mere animalistic impulses? Can a man alter his very essence? And if he can, should he? More heady concepts dealing with cult mentality, psychological manipulation, and war-time PTSD add even more thematic fuel to the fire, and a potent undercurrent of crass sexuality invades many of these underlining themes, serving as an ever-present reminder of the protagonist's carnal preoccupation. While all these competing ideas can sometimes feel disconnected and removed from one another, the script's loosely associated thoughts do eventually come to a strangely fitting conclusion. Whether or not the various shifting patterns actually fit together in a meaningful way, or merely meander into shallow pretension, is certainly up to interpretation, but I lean toward the former rather than the latter. More of an atypical character study than anything else, the answers to the film's mysteries might ultimately lie within the shattered psyche of its central figure.
Physically and emotionally fractured, Freddie Quell is one of contemporary cinema's most singular creations, and Joaquin Phoenix completely disappears into the character. Creepy yet utterly pathetic, the man is like a wounded animal, crooked and misshapen inside and out. Constantly hunched over and squinting, it's like he's literally struggling to hold himself together, tightly contorting his body for fear that it will all simply crumble away. Though he's clearly a product of war-ravaged suffering, one is left questioning if this veteran was ever really normal to begin with. Phoenix is nearly unrecognizable in the part, and his slurred speech, unpredictable behavior, and broken demeanor, are truly painful to watch. A slave to all of man's baser instincts, Freddie is an alcoholic, a thief, and a sex-obsessed pervert frequently prone to nervous laughter, immature quirks, and primal fits of violence. He's an attack dog, ready to rip apart or hump the nearest leg, an unloved stray rabid yet fiercely loyal to his master -- but who, or what, will ultimately fill those shoes?
One possible answer lies in the mysterious and charismatic Lancaster Dodd. A self-proclaimed writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher and "hopelessly inquisitive man," Dodd is a thoroughly inscrutable figure. The leader of a cult-like spiritual and "scientific" movement known as The Cause, the character has clear delusions of grandeur. He talks a lot, spewing oblique philosophical ramblings, but never actually says anything. A skilled manipulator and likely fraud, it remains unclear if Dodd is merely a lying opportunist, or if he actually believes his own bullshit. Hoffman plays the role brilliantly, and brings a carefully mannered performance to the screen. His speech patterns are all perfectly attuned to the character's playfully formal diction, and there is an inherently comical, nearly absurdist aspect to the man that lurks just beneath the surface.
Together, both actors form a truly captivating contrast, and in many ways, Freddie presents Dodd with the ultimate challenge. A prototypical example of humanity's primitive desires, the troubled veteran is, in the leader's own words, a "naughty boy," a "rascal," and a "scoundrel." He's everything The Cause seeks to elevate. Lost and without direction, the character becomes the perfect guinea pig, and Dodd fully takes advantage of his susceptibility. With that said, their relationship proves to be far more complex than that, and the dueling ambiguity of their unlikely pairing becomes one of the film's most fascinating components. Indeed, whether his methods are sincere or complete nonsense, Dodd seems to deeply care for Freddie, and despite his constant regressions, Freddie seems to actually want to be "healed." This leads to some of the film's most provocative sequences, chronicling the Master's attempts to retrain the war-torn brute into a civilized, spiritual being.
These endeavors take on the guise of "processing," which involves Dodd asking Freddie a series of questions over and over again. The procedure aims to systematically wear the man down, emotionally beating him into giving the desired responses before finally instigating a mental journey into the past. In other words, it's like a form of verbal torture combined with thinly veiled hypnosis. Later, Freddie is subjected to even more psychological testing, as he's put through a series of excruciating and seemingly pointless mental and emotional exercises designed to… well, I'm not completely sure. You'd have to ask Lancaster Dodd that, but I wouldn't expect a cohesive answer. Throughout it all, Phoenix and Hoffman share an otherworldly on-screen chemistry, cementing their inexplicable kinship as something real, tangible, and utterly engaging. Perhaps, as their fictional characters speculate of themselves, the two performers already knew each other in another life.
Taking his cue from the great Stanley Kubrick, director Paul Thomas Anderson layers the film with a slow, contemplative style marked by formalistic symmetry and thoughtful compositions. The framing is often impeccably balanced yet still slightly askew, evoking the characters' tilted internal perceptions. Bold, faintly disorienting images all imply deeper moods and meanings, filling the screen with a hypnotically absorbing mise-en-scene. Long, extended takes with free flowing camera movements are common, sustaining the film's uncomfortable, gradual escalation of tension while forming an ethereal extension of time. Jonny Greenwood's unsettling score also bolsters the movie's tempo, enhancing the film's faintly off-kilter rhythm. As quietly arresting as Anderson's aesthetic is, the director also knows when to simply let his actors act, and there are key instances where unobtrusive stationary shots and purely functional cuts are employed, allowing the leads' peerless performances to take center stage.
When I first saw 'The Master' in theaters, my initial reaction was one of restrained admiration. While I found the cinematography and performances to be exceptional, I felt that the script was underwhelming, muddled, and fundamentally without purpose. I recognized and applauded the cinematic depth of Anderson's work, but was left cold by what I perceived to be an uncertainty of vision. In many ways, the screenplay seemed unfinished, like the director needed to go through one more draft to flesh out and connect its disparate themes and plotlines. If I were asked to rate the film then, I would have probably given it a solid 3.5.
Now that I've had the opportunity to see the picture for a second time, my appreciation for the film has grown considerably. Elements that once seemed overly ponderous, extraneous, or oblique, now carry greater clarity, and the many lingering layers of ambiguity now seem genuinely intriguing rather than merely pretentious and unfocused. The film presents itself as a thematic enigma, keeping the audience at a slight emotional and intellectual distance, but this complexity is potentially deceptive. Dressing up a subversively low brow undercurrent through high art style, Anderson's true intentions might actually be much more accessible and transparent than they at first seem. At least, that's my current conclusion, but the film's infinitely dense material lends itself to endless interpretations, making it an experience ripe for further repeat viewings
Though deliberately anticlimactic, the movie's final scenes are extremely telling, ostensibly revealing the ultimate altar to which Freddie Quell is seemingly enslaved. Perhaps it's true then, that we all have a master to answer to, and whether through innate compulsion, lingering trauma, or deliberate choice, Freddie finally accepts his. At the end of the day, beneath all its art house grandstanding, weighty intellectual content, and impenetrable form, 'The Master' really might be nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of a well told dirty joke. Only, I'm not so sure that there's a punch line.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Anchor Bay presents 'The Master' in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack. A BD-50 disc, a separate DVD, and instructions for a downloadable digital copy are all housed together in a keepcase. Upon startup, the screen transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A coded.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Primarily shot on 65mm, this is one of the most consistently impressive video presentations that I've come across. Technically and artistically potent, the image is virtually flawless and absolutely breathtaking.
The print is essentially pristine, though there are some negligible specks here and there. A very light layer of grain is present throughout and there are no signs of digital artifacts or manipulation. Detail is impeccable, with fine textures and patterns readily visible on clothing, locations, and characters. Joaquin Phoenix's face is especially striking, and one can make out every line of tortured uncertainty and pain on his brow. The cinematography itself is utterly mesmerizing, and the impeccable compositions dazzle with razor sharp clarity and life-like dimension. The color palette is vivid and sumptuous, with rich hues that pop from the screen without becoming too unnatural or overpowering. Contrast is perfectly balanced with even whites and deep, inky black levels. Really, the only minor imperfection I detected was some occasional flicker (particularly during the scene where Freddie, Dodd, and Clark engage in their psychological exercise). I'm not sure if this is a defect of the transfer or simply a result of the original shooting and lighting methods, but either way it really isn't much of a distraction.
Though we're only two months into 2013, this transfer will likely go down as the year's most impressive. Gorgeously cinematic and filled with visually and intellectually stimulating images, this is easily one of the best looking discs I've seen on the Blu-ray medium.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track and optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Surprisingly frontloaded, the mix doesn’t quite reach the same heights as the immaculate video transfer, but the restrained sound design is very effective.
Dialogue is clean, full-bodied, and well prioritized throughout. Unfortunately, that doesn't make Joaquin Phoenix's often slurred and mumbled delivery any easier to decipher. Though a few lines are a little hard to understand, that's simply the nature of the character, and the important conversations are all clear. While there are some instances of directionality across the front three speakers when called for (a door knock, a motorcycle speeding by), for the most part, effects work is fairly centralized. Likewise, true surround activity is rare, though some music cues and general ambience do make their way to the rears. Thankfully, Jonny Greenwood's unsettling score comes through with strong separation and fidelity. Coupled with the sparse but deliberate effects work, the music gives the film an uncomfortable, escalating rhythm. Dynamic range is wide and distortion free, offering an extensive gamut between the characters' tiny whispers and violent outbursts.
The artistry behind the sound design is potent, but the lack of surround activity does limit the track's scale. Still, the mix manages to be immersive regardless, and the inventive score and understated effects come together brilliantly.
Anchor Bay has put together a relatively small but worthwhile collection of special features, including a fantastic montage of deleted scenes and a 1946 documentary that inspired the film's story. All of the extras are presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and optional English subtitles.
Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master' is one of the year's most intriguing and potentially divisive films. Partially illuminating man's struggle against his own nature, Freddie Quell's journey is endlessly puzzling, frustratingly dense, and open to a myriad of interpretations. Mostly shot on 65mm, the video transfer is mesmerizing, and is among the best the Blu-ray medium has to offer. Though mostly front-loaded, the audio mix is still artistically potent and relatively immersive. This disc isn't exactly packed with special features, but the deleted scenes and John Huston directed documentary are fantastic inclusions. The film certainly won't be for everyone, but I found its sometimes challenging elements to be very rewarding. Those looking for a casual movie-going experience should definitely look the other way, but for those open to its art house sensibilities, this disc is certainly recommended.