Master, The (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits the rich, unique, and challenging world of P.T. Anderson...
An antisocial, sex-obsessed, PTSD-addled WWII naval veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) returns to America and struggles to rejoin post-war society. The one thing he can do well is cook-up moonshine, which brings him into contact with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a philosophical movement known as ‘The Cause.’ Lancaster finds himself fascinated by Freddie and welcomes him into the fold in hopes of ‘curing’ his ails via psychological exercises. Freddie’s erratic behavior begins to drive a wedge between other members of ‘The Cause,’ including Lancaster’s zealot wife, Peggy (Amy Adams).
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson began his career as a child of the ‘70s. He didn’t merely pay homage to the period by setting his second feature, Boogie Nights, within the era; his first three films are glowing with tributes to ‘70s filmmakers, especially Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. His first three films, Hard Eight (which was altered by the studio), Boogie Nights, and Magnolia originally appeared to represent a expansion of his poppy, energetic, multi-character storytelling style, but, following a break with the more singularly focused Punch Drunk Love, it’s now beginning to look more like these films (released in a brief period between 1995 and 1999) were a sort of stylistic trilogy. Following Punch Drunk Love, something of a comma in an otherwise divided career, Anderson appears to have matured away from making clever, plot-heavy movies with wild camera movies and found inspiration in a classic, studio system Hollywood films. 2007’s There Will Be Blood drew less drama from witty dialogue and punchy cinematographic tricks (long takes, montage editing, etc), and more from performances and stoic, natural photography. His latest film, The Master, follows the suit set by There Will Be Blood – it’s less Scorsese/Altman, more Huston/Ford.
Anderson's films are now events on the level with a Terrence Malick film or even a Stanley Kubrick film, when he was still alive. We rarely assume that Anderson is going to make nothing but masterpiece after masterpiece, just like we don't assume every Malick release is going to be perfect, but there is cause to assume both directors will continue making interesting and unique films. At the very least Anderson, like Malick and Kubrick, has made it clear that he's going to take the time to make exactly the film he sets out to make and, in turn, what we see will be the purest and most complete version of that unique personal vision. As a fan of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, it’s particularly fascinating watching Anderson working with such little dialogue. He hasn’t changed the way he gives his actors the time they require ( Punch Drunk Love aside, his final cut films have all been quite long – he’s changed the way he structures discussion and has entirely changed the rhythm of his storytelling). Assuming his earlier films were a mix of pop music and jazz, his latest two films are more like Romance era classical music mixed with American folk.
The Master is structured similarly to There Will Be Blood. It opens with a largely wordless look at the main character’s daily experiences before the proper story has consummated. This is followed by tone-setting speeches and casual jumps in time and place without any kind of on-screen description. There isn’t a very specific plot to point to in either film, rather a series of sequences that, when added together, create more of a tonal narrative. The two films are then book-ended with very, very similarly staged final sequences. Anderson breaks from his more recent tradition by incorporating flashbacks, though these aren’t an abstract stylistic choice – there is a thematic reasoning within Lancaster Dodd’s psychological testing. The lack of a distinctive narrative focus (the script’s influences are legion, including the true story of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, deleted sequences from There Will Be Blood, and stories Jason Robards told Anderson about his time in the Navy) and the ‘slice of life’ structure here does add up to a pretty listless experience. However, I should probably clarify that I never found the process of watching the film boring. The problem here really isn’t in the initial viewing, which is entangled in enough mystery to maintain audience attention, the problem will be in the value repeat viewings. With the mystery already unraveled, the film’s placid qualities will likely diminish the want to revisit the lavish photography and engaging performances.
The scope and size of The Master’s cast and characters seem conservative compared to the Altmanesque Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but is something of a return to form following There Will Be Blood, which focused so sharply on the performance of a single super star actor, like Daniel Day Lewis. Paul Dano was given plenty of screen-time as well, but there was no mistaking the overwhelming power Lewis brought to the film. The Master is also mostly divided between two major performances. It marks the first collaboration between Anderson and formally-faux-retired Joaquin Phoenix and his fourth collaboration with Philip Seymour Hoffman. Joaquin Phoenix does disappear almost impossibly into his role and walks a tightrope between humanity and caricature. He threatens to veer into overkill at every turn, but holds back just enough to remain a compelling portrait of vice and antisocial behavior. What is especially interesting about this role isn’t the performance, but the fact that Phoenix (and his late brother, River) actually grew up in the throes of a religious cult. Hoffman also tends to disappear into his character, but is far more restrained and warm. His performance is most intriguing in contrast to his roles in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love – all four characters are basically only unified by their physical similarities, since Hoffman’s frame is a sort of unavoidable character element. Otherwise, this collection of characters alone is enough to really define the actor’s career and capabilities.
The Master is the first non-documentary film since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996 to be shot using 65mm film (specs state that about 15% of the film was shot 35mm out of necessity, also with Panavision cameras). This was a first for Anderson, who also worked for the first time without cinematographer Robert Elswit, and the first time he’s worked outside of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio since he started making feature-length releases. Anderson and replacement cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (who worked with Francis Ford Coppola on the digitally-shot Youth without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt) reframed their 2.20:1 footage to 1.85:1 for theatrical distribution and that is the framing of choice for this 1080p Blu-ray transfer. If anyone ever needed a film/Blu-ray release to prove that digital photography hasn’t managed to out-perform plain film, it is this one.
This strict adherence to analogue formatting and qualities of 65mm film lead to an absolutely gorgeous blend of the old-fashioned and new-fangled. The grain structure is slightly inconsistent, likely based on the occasional use of 35mm and the lack of digital influence on darker sequences, though nothing I’d ever consider excessive. Details are consistent, depending on Malaimare’s focal choices, producing both sharp textures in close-up and complex, tightly constructed patterns in the backgrounds of wide shots. The vibrant and heavily contrasted colours are enough to make one assume digital grading was employed, but apparently almost everything that made it on-screen was created via chemical processes. Assuming this transfer is a good representation of the theatrical release (I didn’t see the film in theaters, unfortunately) the achievement is impressive. The warm hues are searing and the cool hues are freezing without ever appearing over-stylized or aggressive. Most of the lighting is harsh enough to keep fine gradations at a relative minimum, leading to more sharply separated and poppy colour elements, but there are some very smooth blends as well that would make a Red Epic camera jealous. The limits of chemical processes is seen in some impure blacks. These are often infiltrated by blue and grey, yet remain rather consistent past their impure state. The white levels are pushed quite hard, to the point that any lighting source is effectively white, rather than blue or yellow. These harsh whites are made to bloom, especially when focus is limited, but aren’t blown-out or over-sharpened. The softer background blends feature occasional low-level noise, but otherwise digital artefacts aren’t an issue.
Like Anderson’s other films, especially There Will Be Blood, The Master mixes low-key, natural ambience with spikes of stylized hyper-realism. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is a fine, crisp sample of these dueling aural personalities. The sound design comes to life most aggressively when the rush and roar of the ocean is a part of the equation and most sharply when focused on close-up montages of Freddie’s alcoholic concocting. The hypnotically-induced flashbacks often feature a relative lack of ambience, giving specific focus to the dialogue/narration. There are a couple of moments where the actors (usually Phoenix) shout so loudly that there is minor distortion on the track, but I assume that the original tracks are just as damaged as those on this uncompressed mix. Music has also always played a strong role in Anderson’s movies, but it wasn’t until There Will Be Blood that he started leaning harder on score over period music. His unique qualities were maintained, however, through his choice of musical collaborator, Jonny Greenwood (who works a day job as a guitarist for Radiohead). Greenwood’s music is achieved through traditional, physical instruments and follows classical trends, but intensifies through harsh repetition and other lightly avant garde practices. When given its full rein, this music is by far the loudest element on the track, including punchy rhythmic crashes (usually made via string strikes, rather than percussive instruments), sharp, wandering winds, and swirling, powerful strings.
Extras begin with Back Beyond (20:00, HD), a montage of outtakes and deleted scenes set to Greenwood’s music. Deleted material got a similar treatment on the There Will Be Blood release, but it wasn’t quite this extensive. It’s all a bit pretentious, I suppose, but it also makes a very nice short film supplement to the final feature. The longer footage concerns Freddie’s naval experiences and other adventures before he meets the Dodd’s and the history behind Lancaster’s buried work, including something of a punch line on the whole mystery. Following this and a collection of nine teasers/trailers is Unguided Message (8:00, HD), a brief, fly-on-the-wall look behind-the-scenes, without any real context or purpose.
The ‘big’ extra is Let There Be Light (58:10, HD), a 1946 documentary written and directed by John Huston (narrated by his sound-alike father, Walter Huston) that helped inspire the film, alongside all the Scientology stuff. This film, made for the education of military types post-WWII, covers the psychological damage done to soldiers following the prolonged conflict. The 1946 knowledge base is, of course, out of date, but Huston treats the ‘psychoneurotic soldiers’ with tenderness and respect at a time when such things were still considered controversial. It’s a good standalone piece, but a fun level is added via the context supplied by the film. Anderson even took a line or two.
The Master is arguably the ideal stylistic follow-up to There Will Be Blood, but is never as perfectly told or contained within the parameters of his newer ‘mode of expression.’ It’s a great film on many levels that never quite add up to the sum of its parts. It’s a lesser film that still manages to be high among the best of 2012. Even as he stumbles, Paul Thomas Anderson continues to be among the most exciting and unique filmmakers working today and I can’t wait to see what he has next in line. This Blu-ray features a gorgeous 1080p transfer taken from a sharp 65mm source, a crisp, understated DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and an interesting series of extras that expand the cinematic experience without many behind-the-scenes specifics.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 26th February 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Back Beyond (Outtakes), Unguided Message (Behind the Scenes), Teasers and Trailers, Let Their Be Light (1946), DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Jesse Plemons
Length: 138 minutes
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