Review: ‘The Master’ is Beauty That Sticks In Your Brain

By  · Published on August 7th, 2012

by Victor Escobar

Editor’s Note: On Friday night in Santa Monica’s Aero Theater, a group of movie fans gathered to enjoy a 70mm print of The Shining were treated to the first screening ever of Paul Thomas Anderson’s forthcoming The Master. We’ve asked film geek Victor Escobar, who was lucky enough to be there, to offer his thoughts on the film. It hits theaters September 21st.

I thought that I was lucky just because I had won tickets to see The Shining on Friday, but before it began, we were told that a special 70 mm print was being shown right afterward and that we were welcome to stay for the screening. During the movie, I kept thinking of films that were shot in 70 mm which would make a great follow-up to Kubrick’s hotel-set horror. The first and most logical film that came to mind was 2001: A Space Odyssey. So the film ends, the lights go up and we’re told that we will be the first people to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master.

The announcement was greeted by a unanimous roar from the audience.

The Master is about Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a man without any self control or a sense of direction life, who is taken under the wing of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Both men find inspiration within each other but as Dodd’s religion grows, Freddie finds himself going against not just Dodd’s teachings, but Dodd himself.

I wasn’t exactly sure of my feelings as I left the theater. I didn’t have a single negative response in my head, but I thought about the film on my way home, I thought about it as I was going to sleep,
I thought about it as I woke up and I still find myself thinking about it over and over again.

Partially because of the bombardment of tweets I received following the screening, I was quick to praise the film and my mind was solely focused on the questions that I was being asked about it, but I always felt that something was a bit off. I realized that it was the film’s ambition. It laudably tried to reach the heights of Anderson’s previous films such as There Will Be Blood and Magnolia but The Master never quite makes it there. Still, it is an intimate film with an epic scope that, like it’s main character, occasionally strays off course.

Anderson’s script continues his previous themes of destiny, loneliness, faith and dysfunctional families. The writing really shines through the two lead actors who deliver some of the best performances of their already impressive careers. Phoenix is controlled chaos. A ticking time bomb. His performance is nearly as unpredictable as his character. He goes from calm and inviting in one scene to an absolute animal in the next.

On the other hand, Hoffman is focused, intense and nearly seductive as the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. The best scenes in the film are those that Phoenix and Hoffman share, bouncing off each other in intense verbal showdowns and in strange religious practices conducted by Dodd.

The Master also exceeds in its technical merits. Beautifully photographed in 70mm by Mihai Malaimare Jr., the film’s bright and brilliant colors emulate the optimism of Lancaster Dodd and the film’s 1950s post-war America setting. Jonny Greenwood’s score closely mimics Freddie in the sense that it can range anywhere from subtle, anxiety-inducing percussions to lush harmonies.

Featuring few, if any, redeemable characters, The Master is poised to become a critical darling upon its release but it will no doubt polarize audiences. Its subject matter is sure to cause controversy amongst certain groups. However, with its beautiful photography and impeccable acting, The Master’s only shortcoming is that it ultimately does not live up to the epic that it aims to be.

The Upside: Gorgeous cinematography, excellent writing, and two carnally strong lead performances.

The Downside: Its reach exceeds its grasp.

On the Side: Jeremy Renner was going to play Freddie but bowed out because of his Avengers schedule, while PTA’s constant cinematographer collaborator Robert Elswit was also unavailable because of his duties on The Bourne Legacy, in which Renner also stars.

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