Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER (2012)

Notable Festivals: Venice (Silver Lion)

It’s symptomatic of a high-concept, tentpole-driven system of studio filmmaking that even one of our most treasured directors must struggle to find funding, despite an unbroken string of critically acclaimed works to his name. After the collapse of specialty studio shingles like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures who had churned out dozens of dramatically rich prestige pictures (albeit admittedly calculated to snag Oscars) during the mid-aughts, directors like Paul Thomas Anderson suddenly found themselves shut out from a Hollywood game that increasingly favored mindless popcorn fare. For Anderson in particular, his long-percolating idea about a religious cult inspired by L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology was deemed too risky of subject matter for its asking budget.

Anderson and his regular producers, Daniel Lupi and JoAnne Sellar, struggled to find funding for nearly five years, a fact made all the more excruciating because his previous film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), had generated some of the best reviews and press of Anderson’s career. For a long while, Anderson’s highly-anticipated project, known by various names asTHE UNTITLED PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON PROJECT and THE MASTER, looked like it would never see the light of day. Enter: Megan Ellison, a hotshot twentysomething heiress with a love for visionary auteurs and their work, as well as the considerable financial resources to help make them. In an industry increasingly paralyzed by risk and creative bankruptcy, bold figures like Ellison represent a beacon of hope that art and commerce don’t necessarily have to be separate from one another.

Drawing further inspiration from LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946), John Huston’s World War 2 documentary about soldiers and PTSD, Anderson centers THE MASTER’s focus on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix)—an eccentric, unstable man whose condition was amplified by the shell shock he contracted during the Pacific Theatre of WW2. Freddie can’t hold a steady job, is obsessed with sex, and is slowly drinking himself to death with a potent brew of whiskey, paint thinner, and torpedo fuel. In a drunken stupor, he wanders onto the yacht of a fatherly middle-aged man named Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is revealed to be an enigmatic and charismatic scholar as well as the figurehead of a new religious following known simply as The Cause. Freddie and Lancaster share a curious attraction to each other, with Lancaster tickled by the sense that he and Freddie have met once before—perhaps in a past life. Freddie uses Lancaster’s hospitality to ingratiate himself into The Cause’s good graces and inner circle, eventually earning himself a spot as a Lieutenant and Lancaster’s right-hand man.

THE MASTER defies narrative convention in that there’s no traditional story arc for audiences to follow. Instead, Anderson lets the story unfold in a compellingly obtuse way that highlights the leads’ off-kilter orbit around each other. The result is a strange hybrid combining the starkness and gravitas of THERE WILL BE BLOOD with the eccentric abstraction of PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (2002). There’s no condemnation of Scientology to be found here, like many had simply assumed or believed before seeing it—instead, Anderson’s vision is a portrait of a deeply disturbed individual finding his place within a community. It just so happens that the “community” also happens to be a cult.

The character of Freddie Quell is played with rapturous abandon by Phoenix in his first major role since his staged breakdown-as-performance-art seen in Casey Affleck’s I’M STILL HERE (2010). He crafts a haunting, Oscar-nominated depiction of a man ravaged by war and self-abuse, commanding our undivided attention in every frame while fully immersing himself in his character (much like Daniel Day-Lewis had done in THERE WILL BE BLOOD).

Likewise, the late Hoffman was nominated for an Oscar in his last collaboration with Anderson before his untimely death in early 2014. Due to his long, rich working history with Anderson, Hoffman had the benefit of the role being written expressly for him, making for an effortless performance that projects a paternal warmth and convincing gravitas. As one of the last roles of his career and life, Hoffman’s quiet, authoritative presence and un-showy confidence proves why he was considered to be one of the best, if not the best, actor of his generation. And last, but not least, Amy Adams plays Peggy Dodd, presenting a warm, matronly front as Lancaster’s wife—but behind closed doors, she’s more calculating and manipulative than Lady MacBeth. In a film devoted to the two titan performances from its male leads, Adams more than holds her own, ending up with Oscar nomination herself for the trouble.

Anderson’s regular cinematographer, Robert Elswit, was unavailable to shoot THE MASTER, so the auteur enlisted the help of Mihai Malaimaire Jr—currently making a name for himself as Francis Ford Coppola’s go-to cameraman. The visual style of Anderson’s sixth feature is starkly different from what came before, the chief difference being Anderson’s choice to shoot the picture on 65mm film, making it the first feature to utilize the format since 1996. This decision informed every subsequent choice down the line, meaning Anderson couldn’t shoot in his preferred anamorphic aspect ratio, and that the 65mm film camera’s sheer bulk limited his ability to execute his signature, dynamic movements. Anderson reconciled this diluting of style with an opportunity to explore the idea of portraiture. He had always incorporated some aspect of it into his framing in past works, such as the precise profile compositions that dotted HARD EIGHT (1996) and BOOGIE NIGHTS(1997), but in shooting on 65mm film, Anderson was able to better replicate the look of large-format portraiture photography. A higher image resolution meant shallower focus and finer grain, and when combined with the deep, stormy blues and greys afforded old-fashioned chemical color-timing, creates a rich picture that draws the viewer into this curious world.

As I mentioned before, the size of the 65mm film camera meant Anderson’s compositions were mostly limited to locked-off tripod shots, which makes for a significantly more sedate experience than any of his previous works. What little camera movement there is takes the form of slow and steady dolly moves, giving THE MASTER a patient, calculated pace that echoes the work of Stanley Kubrick.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s production designer Jack Fisk returns for THE MASTER, faithfully and subtly replicating the look of midcentury California. Every non-organic thing within the bounds of Anderson’s frame—the costumes, the color palette, Lancaster’s trusty yacht—is Fisk’s domain, and his unwavering commitment to authenticity and Anderson’s vision helps to create an engrossing experience that never feels false or out of place. Anderson supplements Fisk’s authentic midcentury feel by incorporating a few well-chosen needledrop songs from the era, like Ella Fitzgerald’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”. Compared to the wall-to-wall disco explosion of 1997’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, the relatively sparse placement of source tracks shows the discipline and restraint of a mature filmmaker secure and confident in his vision. Increasingly relying on original score to communicate his intended tone, Anderson again works with Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, who crafted THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s stunning symphony of dissonance. With THE MASTER, Greenwood crafts a lumbering, staccato score that promises mystery and discovery, while echoing the hypnotic techniques that practitioners of The Cause use on their followers.

Throughout the course of his filmography, Anderson’s exploration of family dynamics, sexual dependence, and the cultural heritage of California have evolved in surprising ways. California is notorious for its laidback, inclusive social structures— structures that allowed the rise of Scientology and other fringe religions. Just as Scientology is distinctly tied to the Golden State in its origins and operations, so too does THE MASTER’s fictional organization claim California (specifically San Francisco and the state’s northern region) as its physical and mental territory. Despite the film’s storyline taking us to different places like New York City, Phoenix, and Lynn, Massachusetts (the hometown of Anderson’s father, Ernie), Anderson’s treatment of these locales never loses sight of a distinctly Californian approach, utilizing primal iconography like the beach, palm trees, and the desert wherever it can.

Anderson’s continued fascination of family dynamics uses THE MASTER to explore the idea of family in a larger sense: a community, and the sense of belonging to one. As a lost soul without any family we are made aware of, Freddie comes off like a complete mess of a human being. He travels the world like an aimless drifter, with no real driving force pulling him along besides the pursuit of fleeting comforts like rotgut booze and fast women. It’s not until he’s caught under the spell of Lancaster’s charismatic charlatan that he finds a semblance of peace and companionship. He’s able to calm his voracious sexual appetite and channel it into what he perceives to be meaningful pursuits in service to something greater than him.

Without the presence of a conventional plot arc, the film’s stakes and key emotional conflict stem from Freddie’s presence within the community becoming a liability and a danger to Lancaster and Peggy, an idea made all the more complicated by the chummy father/son relationship that Lancaster shares with Freddie. In this way, THE MASTER plays like something of a companion piece to THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Both films hinge on the relationship between father and son, with the father being a powerful man of influence and means, while the initially-loyal son bears the threat of the father’s professional demise. The similarities become most evident in each film’s climax, which both take place in the father’s grand, cathedral-like office. THERE WILL BE BLOOD finds the scene bathed in darkness, as Daniel Plainview venomously rejects his son and condemns himself to a life of wretched loneliness. Conversely, Lancaster Dodd’s office is awash in blinding daylight and, while he also releases Freddie of his bond, he does so in a warm, reassuring manner that’s meant to bring peace to Freddie’s inner chaos.

As a continuation of Anderson’s weighty examinations of profoundly flawed men, THE MASTER was received with great enthusiasm by critics. However, the positive reaction was not as universal as it was for THERE WILL BE BLOOD. The two films are stylistically similar, conceived of and executed in a similar mindset and directly influenced by the work of John Huston. Anderson’s works have never exactly lit the box office on fire, and THE MASTER is no exception. However, its winning of the Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival, as well as the Academy Award nominations for its three leads, ensures THE MASTER’s place as one Anderson’s defining works.

THE MASTER is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Anchor Bay.

Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director of Photography: Mihai Malaimaire Jr
Production Designer: Jack Fisk
Edited by: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty
Music by: Johnny Greenwood