When I first viewed The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s scathing critique of Scientology and blind hero worship, I didn’t know what to make of it. His previous film, There Will Be Blood, was a towering work of American cinema; how would he follow up one of the most acclaimed of modern films? Released in 2012, the film confounded some critics initially, with many others leaping to sing its praises; for me, this is the first and only PTA effort that took a few viewings for me to totally fall in love with rather than be head over heels upon first sight. And I think, the big reason for the personal disconnect at first, was that I didn’t realize that, at heart, the film is a bitter black comedy, designed to make you laugh over events that are outrageously absurd.
But the more I revisit the film, the harder and harder I laugh and the more brilliant I realize it to be, with each performance informing the rest of the ensemble, and PTA’s deliriously bleak worldview on caustic display, spinning a story about psychologically fractured people and the way that one’s own self can become transformed by the power of thoughts and words and repeated actions. It’s also interesting to note that PTA based this film from some unique sources, including the “work” of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, portions of early drafts from There Will Be Blood, drunken Navy stories that were told to him by Jason Robards during the filming of Magnolia (the draining of the torpedoes for their ethanol, for instance), and the life events of iconic author John Steinbeck. Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love still remain tied as my favorite works from PTA, but this is a filmmaker who only knows how to craft masterworks.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix in a slippery-serpent performance of total animalistic rage, The Master takes a piercing and highly critical view of a fictitious “religious movement” called “The Cause”, which is a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to “The Church of Scientology.” Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a PTSD-afflicted WWII veteran who is having severe difficulty adjusting to life post-combat. After some aimless and wasted drifting, he crosses paths with an enigmatic man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his best, most hysterical performances, all pure hostility and empty bravado) who purports to be a religious leader, ready to unleash “The Cause” upon the American masses. He’s a fraud, of course, and over the course of the narrative, Freddie will learn all about how Lancaster is nothing more than a cheap salesman with a twisted agenda.
Amy Adams’ is Dodd’s strange and brainwashed wife, who likely knows that her husband is full of hot-air, but blindly goes along with his ruse and emotional deception. And as per usual with a PTA picture, the film has a stacked deck of amazing character actors and pitch-perfect faces, all of whom bring a distinct level of class to the entire production. As the story unfolds, you watch various levels of madness unfold all around each person caught up in the story, with Phoenix’s performance becoming something completely surreal by the end. And as you watch the relationship between Phoenix and Hoffman evolve, a sort of kinship can be seen between the two actors; they clearly loved working with each other as they both brought out something special from each other.
The Master boasts some immaculate production values, from the pristine and gorgeous cinematography by Mihai Mălaimare Jr., who shot the film in 65mm, producing an image that had a pristine quality on the big screen, and resulting in a Blu-ray transfer that is beyond spotless. Johnny Greenwood’s pensive and entrancing musical score is yet another distinguished collaboration with PTA, and the dreamy editing patterns by Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty only amplifies the surreal nature to the entire piece. The evocative and politely sinister production design by Jack Fisk and David Crank, especially in Dodd’s compound, only ups the level of anxiety (both physically and emotionally) felt by everyone in the film, especially Freddie. On an aesthetic level alone, the film is a marvel, and when combined with PTA’s heady and provocative themes, not to mention his subtle sense of comedy, the film becomes something rather dense and brilliant.
And none of this – NONE OF IT – would have happened without the financial backing of producer Megan Ellison, who for the last few years has utterly dominated the auteur-driven independent filmmaking space, with credits such as Inherent Vice, Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly, Spring Breakers, True Grit, Lawless, The Grandmaster, Her, American Hustle, Foxcatcher, Joy, Everybody Wants Some!, Wiener-Dog, Sausage Party, and upcoming films from PTA (a 50’s fashion world drama with Daniel Day Lewis), Kathryn Bigelow (an untitled but sure to be masterful Detroit riots drama), and Alexander Payne (the corporate satire Downsizing). Fucking-A. Without her, we’d be NOWHERE as film lovers. The Master made its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the FIPRESCI Award for Best Film. It was released on September 14, 2012, and was met with excellent if curious reviews, and despite not bringing in a big haul at the box office, it would end up receiving three Oscar nominations: Best Actor for Phoenix, Best Supporting Actor for Hoffman, and Best Supporting Actress for Adams.