THE MASTER (2012)
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has a personality only a mother could love. Returning home after World War II with a massive case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Quell finds it difficult to get back into the rhythm of a quiet suburban life. Sex serves as his only distraction from his pain, and while his libido burns like an atom bomb, the physical rewards of intercourse don't provide the relief he seeks.
As such, Freddy finds his postwar existence so painful that he spends much of his time trying to destroy himself via massive levels of alcohol consumption, including many mixtures of his own creation -- mixtures which typically involve paint thinner and various household cleaners. Quell is a man determined to reach the bottom first, and if he needs to destroy those around him to achieve this goal, well, so be it. If he can't drink, fight, or have sex with something, he assigns it no importance.
After his poor judgment leads to a particularly unpleasant chain of events, Freddy meets the personable Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man who seems to be on top of the world. The author of a spiritual guidebook called The Cause, Dodd has quietly amassed a family of disciples and hangers-on, all of whom call him Master. Dodd, who shares Quell's fondness for alcohol, preaches spiritual enlightenment through past-life regression, an act he dubs "processing." Dodd quickly bonds with the outcast veteran, offering him admission into his religious family. The erratic Freddie, conscious enough to realize that his life is going nowhere, shrugs and comes into the fold.
But all is not well. Freddie's increasingly violent behavior and volatile personality make it difficult for Dodd to continue his teachings. The fact that Dodd remains Quell's lone defender among his increasingly skeptical family generates friction between the Master and his long-suffering wife, Peggy (an absolutely perfect performance by Amy Adams). Meanwhile, Dodd's son Val (Jesse Plemons, looking eerily like Philip Seymour Hoffman) quietly confides to Freddie that he does not believe any of his father's teachings, which throws Freddie further into crisis mode.
With this film, Joaquin Phoenix cements his reputation as one of the bravest actors working today. Freddie Quell is such a despicable character, so unlikable and unsympathetic in nearly every scene, that the mere fact we're able to watch him for two and a half hours is remarkable. He makes Freddie understandable to us, though we never lose sight of the fact that the character is the architect of most of his own problems. Like Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, Phoenix does not sugarcoat Freddie's alcoholism, nor ask us to excuse his behavior. Nor should we -- as with his previous film, There Will Be Blood, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has created an anti-hero protagonist who is thoroughly engaging, yet consistently horrifying.
Anyone who has seen his previous work (including Magnolia, Boogie Nights, and Punch Drunk Love) knows that Mr. Anderson does not make timid films. With The Master, he takes on religious cults, in particular Scientology. Although the name L. Ron Hubbard is never mentioned, the parallels between Dodd and the famed sci-fi-author-turned-cult-leader are hard to miss. Credit must be given to Hoffman, who has proven himself incapable of turning in less than an exquisite performance (is there anything this guy can't do?). In his hands, Lancaster Dodd is a benevolent snake oil salesman, who doesn't seem to understand that he's administering spiritual placebos. It would have been easy to portray Dodd as a mustache-twirling caricature, delighted by his success and cynical over the platitudes he's selling. But there's no hint of skepticism in Hoffman's performance. Lancaster Dodd is a man who wants to save the world, and is willing to move mountains to do it. And if he happens to sell a bunch of books in the process, hey, so much the better.
The Master is not a happy, feel-good movie. The subject matter is challenging, and many audience members have been dumbfounded by it. I saw it during its original theatrical run (as I do every Paul Thomas Anderson film), and left the theater deep in thought, not quite sure how to process the experience I'd just had. After watching the film again for the purposes of this review, I feel that I "get it" now. As with the best movies, The Master is a piece of art that rewards introspection. It demands to be analyzed and discussed; a popcorn film this isn't.
The fact that The Master also contains the three best performances this year (only Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln even comes close) is merely gravy. Although if anyone can explain to me how a film can get Oscar nominations for all three of its lead actors (Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams), while the writer/director gets snubbed, I'd be grateful.
Enough about the movie! What about the blu-ray?
Lovingly shot in 65mm by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., The Master positively glows on blu-ray. With muted colors and a pastel-tinted pallet, Paul Thomas Anderson succeeds in exposing the seedy underside of Normal Rockwell's America, when soldiers returning from World War II were expected to keep their mouths shut about their tramautic experiences, or be dismissed as unmanly. A few dark scenes aboard Dodd's boat lack the visual gloss of the rest of the film, but I can attest that these scenes look exactly the way I remember them from the theater, and do not reflect a flaw in the blu-ray encoding.
The Master is presented in a 1080p anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, while the sole audio track is English DTS 5.1 HD. Considering the film is extremely dialogue intensive, I found the DTS track to be serviceable, if slightly underwhelming. Due to Phoenix's mush-mouthed style of delivery, I often found him difficult to understand. (I had no such problems with any other character, nor do I remember encountering this problem in the theater.) Although the film does not contain an abundance of music, Jonny Greenwood's score is loud, clear, and powerful in the scenes that employ it.
Optional English and Spanish subtitles are provided. Color bars are also offered, for users wishing to calibrate their television before viewing the film.
Special features include 20 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes (all scored by Jonny Greenwood), a trailer gallery (including a whopping *9* teasers and trailers for the movie), 8 minutes of (often very funny) behind the scenes footage, and, best of all, a copy of Let There Be Light, the celebrated 1946 documentary about the problems faced by returning World War II vets. The documentary was directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen) and remains a fascinating portrait of a delicate issue. Regrettably, the video and audio presentation of the documentary is less than stellar, but the content more than makes up for it.
A DVD version is also included, along with a download code for an iTunes digital copy, neither of which I sampled.
The Master hits blu-ray on February 26, 2013. Amazon currently has the disc available for pre-order here.