The Master Review

The Master begins in the dying days of World War II, as sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), alcoholic and sex-obsessed, is loafing on a tropical island, brewing up drinks with all manner of strange ingredients, submarine fuel and paint thinner among them. Yet there's a destructive side to Freddie and this comes more and more apparent as after demobilisation he takes on a series of jobs. Eventually he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams). Dodd has just the cure for Freddie, a system of his own devising called “The Cause”. This involves “Processing”, a method of psychological questioning designed to expose and remove past traumas. Freddie becomes Dodd's friend and right-hand man.

Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth feature is in many ways a summing-up of many of his achievements in the previous five. There's the theme of surrogate fathers and sons, which runs through much of his work, and the barely functional protagonist with definite anger issues is prefigured by Adam Sandler's role in Punch-Drunk Love. Anderson's films have divided between the large-scale ensemble pieces with period/historical settings(apart from Magnolia), running over two and a quarter hours, and smaller and shorter films (Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love, essentially a four-hander and a three-hander respectively). The Master has that epic feel to it in some ways, visual included (of which more later), but it's also a character-led piece with just three main roles. For someone only born at the start of that decade, Anderson is a filmmaker rooted in the 1970s, and comparisons to Altman and Scorsese were made of his earlier films. The Master is a film clearly influenced by much of the best work of those years, though the emphasis on characterisation – and very much shades-of-grey characterisation at that – may well be disconcerting to some viewers.

Much has been made of the resemblance between Dodd and L. Ron Hubbard, a SF writer in the 1940s who founded a religion, Dianetics, which later became the Church of Scientology. Those resemblances are there, but what The Master is not is any kind of biopic of Hubbard, disguised or otherwise. You could easily see it as a (platonic) love story between the two men, both with an ability to produce their own different kinds of moonshine for an audience. Peggy certainly seems to think that way: in many ways the true power behind Dodd's throne, she sees Freddie as a rival and dangerous. By the end of the film, how much has changed with both men is a question we have to ask ourselves. Anderson, by reprising certain shots from the start of the film, gives the film circularity, implying that not much has.

The three lead performances are all first-rate. Phoenix seems to be channelling the Method – quite appropriate for a film set partly in the 1950s – and disappears into a difficult role. Not a sympathetic one, but a compelling one. Hoffman, who has appeared in all of Anderson's films except There Will Be Blood, is just as good as the new-found evangelist who clearly needs a cure for himself. And Amy Adams gives a perfectly-judged performance as a woman with much more inner steel than at first appears. The supporting cast have less to do, but it's nice to see Laura Dern in a smallish role as one of Dodd's associates. The production design, by Jack Fisk and David Crank, is precisely judged and Jonny Greenwood provides a distinctive score, mixed in with contemporary songs.

Many of Anderson's key collaborators are still in place for The Master, with one key exception. Robert Elswit, who had photographed all five of Anderson's previous films, was not available. His replacement is Romanian DP Mihai Malaimare Jr, who had previously worked with Francis Coppola on Youth Without Youth and Tetro. Anderson's previous films were all shot in 35mm in the Scope ratio (Hard Eight in Super 35 with the others anamorphic, for those who like to know these things). Anderson and Milaimare have shot the majority of The Master in 65mm (five-perforation 65mm that is, not the same thing as fifteen-perforation 70mm IMAX), a gauge much used for epic productions, mainly in the 1950s before falling into disuse in the early 1970s. There have been occasional revivals since. This is the first fiction feature since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in 1996 to have been shot in 65mm and the first American one since Far and Away in 1992. (Ron Fricke used 65mm for his documentary features Baraka and Samsara.) It is also the first commercial release of a 70mm film in London in eleven years, since the reissue of 2001 in that year.

This review is from a 70mm screening, and you should see The Master that way if you can. The difference in resolution between it and digital, even 4K digital, is quite apparent. For the most part Anderson and Mihaimare avoid the deep-focus, cast-of-thousands shots often associated with 70mm epics. The depth of field is quite shallow in many scenes. The smaller-scale of this film may be a reason why Anderson and Mihaimare have eschewed the full width of the 65mm frame (native ratio 2.20:1): the film is composed for and projected in the narrower ratio of 1.85:1, the first Anderson feature in that ratio. But even so, the use of large-format film gives the film a grandeur and something of an epic feel. The Dark Knight, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Dark Knight Rises and others have shown the viability of shooting at least part of a film in large-format (IMAX in those cases) so there should be a place for 65/70mm while there remain cinemas capable of showing it.

The Master is a complex, compelling film made for adults, leaving its audiences plenty to chew upon. I'm not saying it's flawless – dramatically it hits a plateau with about an hour to go. But with those reservations, it's still my film of the year so far.

The Master opened in the UK at the Odeon West End in 70mm on 2 November and goes wide (35mm and digital) on 16 November. Further 70mm showings are to be confirmed.




out of 10

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