Paul Thomas Anderson’s highly anticipated film The Master is peculiar and puzzling. The main characters are unlikable, and somewhat opaque. The pacing is uneven, feeling at times like the audience is being marched through a series of ordeals rather than being invited to follow along as a plot unfolds. The ambiguous ending will leave many viewers scratching their heads.
And yet, in its own defiantly odd ways, The Master is a riveting and deeply affecting experience, with majestically beautiful cinematography and powerful acting. It’s not surprising that a film by Anderson would have all of these qualities. In some ways, The Master echoes the structure and themes of his previous film, There Will Be Blood. After one viewing, The Master does not feel quite as strong as that 2007 masterpiece, but it’s intensely interesting, an estimable addition to Anderson’s stellar body of work.
Chicago’s Music Box Theatre held a special screening of The Master in 70 mm on Thursday night (Aug. 16), announcing the charity event with about 24 hours’ notice. Not surprisingly, the 700 tickets sold out in two hours or so. Anderson wants his film to be seen in 70 mm, and the images looked breathtakingly beautiful and sharp in this format.
Alas, as Time Out Chicago critic Ben Kenigsberg pointed out, there aren’t many theaters capable of showing 70 mm films today. The Music Box is the only cinema in Chicago equipped to do it, and it looks unlikely that The Master will show in 70 mm when it opens in other Chicago theaters next month. After Kenigsberg brought attention to the issue, Anderson and the Music Box scheduled last night’s surprise showing. Now, the Music Box’s Dave Jennings says the theater is trying to schedule a run of The Master in 70 mm sometime this winter. The Master will probably look very good in 35 mm … and later on, it will look lovely on DVD and Blu-ray. But the clarity of detail and the richness of color in the 70 mm print were really magnificent. As cinemas switch over to digital projectors, how many more chances will we have to see any films in 70 mm again?
As early reports have indicated, The Master is clearly inspired by the true story of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. The names have been changed, however, and Anderson is not trying to tell a straightforward docudrama about this controversial church, which critics have called a cult. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic leader similar to Hubbard, but the film is framed as the story of another character, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie—an alcoholic, sociopathic brute who can’t control his sexual urges, his thirst for paint-thinner cocktails or his impulses to smash the head of anyone who looks at him wrong. (Phoenix’s performance is frighteningly believable, although he mumbles so much that some of his lines are incomprehensible.)
Once Freddie falls into Dodd’s strange group, Dodd struggles to turn Freddie into a better man, using his trademark techniques, a combination of talk therapy, mumbo jumbo and repetitive drills reminiscent of water torture. Or is Dodd merely trying to get another convert to his Cause (as his book is called)? Although Dodd remains something of an enigma, a mystery man hidden behind the façade of a genius and messiah, his desire to transform Freddie from an animal into a civilized human being seems sincere. The struggle to remake Freddie is at the heart of The Master, and Hoffman and Phoenix bring searing intensity to these scenes.
Other scenes are so strange that they feel surreal, beginning with the film’s opening moments, showing Phoenix’s character humping a naked woman made out of sand on a beach — and culminating with Hoffman’s character eerily bursting out into song. They’re some of the oddest moments in an odd and unforgettable film.
Watch the trailers for The Master — including some scenes that apparently ended up on the cutting-room floor:
(Photos from Rotten Tomatoes.)