I remember, around twenty years ago, reading an interview with director Martin Scorsese, shortly after he scored his first commercial hit with a major studio, GoodFellas. He said he hoped to one day shoot a movie on 65mm film. He wanted to specifically use the process, not to capture an epic battle scene or panoramic landscape, but just two characters conversing in a long hallway. Sounds awfully simple and something not as grand as we might expect from a cinematic director, like say, David Lean. But I understand what Scorsese was getting at. Scorsese’s films have always focused on character and performances and what better way to capture them than the high resolution of 65mm film. It comes as no surprise that director Paul Thomas Anderson shares that same sentiment and for a time was compared to a young Scorsese early in his own career.
In the digital age, 65mm film and simple celluloid itself are nearly extinct formats. Commercially successful directors like Christopher Nolan, who praises the IMAX configuration of 65mm film stock, have lobbied to keep it alive, but only for filmmaking on a scale as grand as Lean. Like Scorsese, Anderson is more interested in the human condition; capturing performance rather than cinematic locales. The Master is a film very focused on the human condition, but it isn’t for everyone. The film has made headlines for its subject matter which explores the founding of a new religious organization very similar to L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology movement. Yet at its heart is a story of two men: a charismatic intellectual and the drifter that for a time becomes his right hand man. Both enter into an unlikely relationship that makes them both friends and adversaries and shapes their futures. Unlike most stories, it is difficult to identify with either of the two main characters, yet the respective performances of stars Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman make them two intricately constructed and realistically flawed, human individuals.
When we first meet Phoenix as Freddie Quell, he is a navy man spending his last days at sea at the close of World War II. Freddie is not only a bit of a trouble maker, with a drinking problem, but his sexual perversions are often revealed with the slip of the tongue. That doesn’t bother the young department store salesgirl (Amy Ferguson) he gets involved with, after taking a job as a portrait photographer, but his unstable temper lands him in hot water with a customer and soon he’s on to his next job picking crops. There’s the hint of a suggestion that Freddie may have taken that photographer’s job just to have access to the unsafe chemicals he needs to whip up strong cocktails. When one of those cocktails causes a fellow worker to fall ill, Freddie runs like hell and wakes up hungover aboard the boat of a man by the name of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).
Dodd is a philosopher and scholar, yet sees himself as “just a man”. The boat and its passengers are about to partake in the wedding of Dodd’s daughter and against his better judgment, he asks Freddie to join them. He’s intrigued by this young’s man honest and carefree attitude as well as that magnificent “hooch” he’s able to whip up with the right chemicals. Within certain circles, Dodd is often referred to as “Master”, namely because he is the founder of a controversial religious organization and claims to have to ability to help others recall their past lives. Freddie becomes a kind of pet project for Dodd, as he initially helps the young man confront his demons in an effort to cure him. The question remains, whether or not Freddie can be cured and despite his eccentricities, whether there is truly anything wrong with him to begin with?
The Master is undoubtedly a very slow moving film, as Anderson focuses on introducing us to Freddie during the film’s opening half hour. I still haven’t figured out whether Phoenix’s consistent habit of hunching over is a choice he makes as an actor or a physical condition from his real life, but it actually aids his performance. One of the reasons it becomes so difficult to identify with Freddie is that he is completely unstable, subject to emotional outbursts and shows not signs of evolving. There really is no arc to his character, yet Phoenix gives a compelling performance that’s also mesmerizing. He’s unpredictable and often every fiber of his being appears to yearn to lash out. One of the most memorable scenes in the film involves an exercise Dodd subjects Freddie to in which calls on him to repeatedly walk back and forth between both ends of the same room, changing his description of what he feels on its walls each time. These exercises are either an attempt to “break” Freddie or engage his imagination, yet neither occurs.
Hoffman’s Dodd is as equally a flawed as Freddie, a man with loyal followers who is also capable of a short emotional outburst or two when someone questions his techniques or motives. “We are not helpless”, he tells one skeptic, “and we are on a journey that braves the dark.” Despite the fact that many followers claim that Dodd’s philosophy has brought them in touch with their past lives and released thousands of years of internal trauma, his own son Val (Jesse Plemons) suggests to Freddie that his father may simply be making it all up as he goes along. Dodd’s growing addiction to Menthol Cools and Freddie’s cocktails is obvious, but it’s also suggested that he has a wandering eye, much to the chagrin of his loyal wife Peggy (Amy Adams). Despite the somewhat “mousy” persona she projects, a scene where Peggy confronts Dodd in the bathroom, literally “busting his balls” by way of physical release, raises the idea that she may truly be the power behind the throne.
Though The Master touches upon the subject of organized religion, its not the film’s primary focus. Anyone expecting any form of a plot might also be disappointed since this is a story that takes its sweet time unfolding, introducing characters big and small that often vanish as quickly as they materialize. Anderson is more focused on the flawed human condition, the unstable beliefs we cling to and the tension that often develops when those beliefs are questioned or challenged. At one major turning point in the story, Dodd and Freddie find themselves at opposing ends, realizing that neither will change their natures or ideologies. Freddie may be the one who suffers from emotional outbursts, but Dodd has a petulant child within himself that’s equally aggressive. The fact that this movie seeks no real resolution to its story may frustrate some viewers, but this is a tale that offers itself as a small slice of a much larger tapestry, in this case life, where there often is no true resolution.
Phoenix, Hoffman and even Adams all give masterful performances that reveal all the hidden warts and blemishes of their characters, while never fully revealing what really makes them tick. This is also a feature that begs to be seen in a 70mm presentation. Anderson has captured incredible imagery in locales such as the open water and the desert, but the high resolution of the format also exposes every flaw on the faces of his actors and still rivals digital photography. Johnny Greenwood’s powerful score resonates long after the picture is over and excels beyond his work on There Will Be Blood. It remains to be seen whether what Anderson has attempted here will inspire other filmmakers to do the same. But The Master’s return to old in both presentation and performances makes for a nice change of pace from the “standard” form of filmmaking we’ve become used to today.