The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson is one our most problematic Great Directors. He is not prolific, which weighs each of his films with correspondingly greater expecation and disappointment. And he is not universally critically admired, which tends to insulate other Greats from their own excesses. (Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is an impeccably crafted slog, but try arguing that in a college film class. I have; enlightenment Did Not Follow.)

Anderson knocked it out of the park with his debut, Hard Eight (1996) – a film by a young man who didn’t know if he’d ever get to direct again, pitched right at the edge of creator’s passion and a mandate to entertain. Boogie Nights (1997) wasn’t better – although it had some great moments, it played too often as a self-conscious Scorsese knockoff. Magnolia (1999) is a masterpiece that one wishes had been a little less – its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink structural approach threatens to, but doesn’t quite, sink the endeavor. (I watched Magnolia, which I regard as a great humanist fable, with an evangelical pastor who complained that if Anderson had removed the word “fuck” from the screenplay the movie would have been 20 minutes shorter. He’s not wrong.)

Anderson’s latest films seem to resist being liked. He cast Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), his most daring project to date (it’s a cinematic tone poem) and Sandler’s all-time lowest grossing film (which includes Jack and Jill.) It was five years until Anderson’s next film. There Will Be Blood (2007) is spectacular. And confounding. That’s the way it is with Anderson. He writes his own films, and as he matures he writes less dialogue for his characters (mostly to greater effect). At the same time he’s become increasingly visual, and he’s improved immeasurably in his approach to music and sound design. There Will Be Blood benefitted from a towering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, who might be the best friend an underwritten screenplay ever had. It looked and sounded like no other film, and it lingered in the mind: I watched it on opening day in a theater with only four others in a 250-seat auditorium. When the credits rolled, one of us said, “I have no idea what to make of that.” It’s not a pleasant movie, but it works.

The Master (2012) took another five years to make. Anderson shot the movie on 65 mm film stock (70 mm format), which is unheard of in the age of digital video (the previous dramatic film to be shot in 70 mm was Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, in 1996.) Think iPhone 5’s Retina display versus the original iPhone – greater resolution and clarity, and more verisimilitude. Or if you like Arcade Fire, this is akin to their insistence on recording and releasing in analog format. The Master looks phenomenal. (A friend watched The Master on a cross-oceanic flight and hated it – I can’t think of a worse movie to watch on a tiny, low resolution screen with ear buds.) And it’s problematic.

Like Anderson’s recent films, The Master has little in the way of conventional plot. It observes. The sound design is even more brilliant than previous Anderson features – in scene after scene, we see and hear only what a lurking observer might witness, which is far from everything. Shots are held longer than expected, at a distance from the action. Like There Will Be Blood, The Master showcases a spiritual dance between two men; unfortunately, Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t one of them.

During production, it was rumored that The Master would be Anderson’s takedown of Scientology. It isn’t that, although there are elements of the L. Ron Hubbard story here. Still, one might expect the story of a charismatic leader to feature a magnetic lead performance. It might not be Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fault – Anderson rarely allows us to see Hoffman’s eyes, so we’re left evaluating what he does instead of being captivated by the snake charmer. It reminded me of Brando’s anticlimactic scenes at the end of Apocalypse Now, except in The Master we get the anticlimax throughout the film. Many praised Hoffman’s performance, but the praise was rote – Anderson promised a Master and many could have played the role to similar acclaim (I wish Daniel Day-Lewis had given it a shot.) Likewise, Joaquin Phoenix was lauded for his work here, but I had the feeling there’s less going on than there seems to be. (Phoenix comes across here as a Paul Thomas Anderson doppelgänger, circa his Magnolia bad-boy days.)

Amy Adams does some lovely work in this film, except when she speaks. I wish that didn’t sound like a terrible putdown, because I’m a fan of her work in Doubt, The Fighter and The Muppets, among others. She carries herself beautifully but hasn’t figured out how to cast her voice in the role (also an achilles heel of Tom Cruise, who was brilliantly used by Anderson in Magnolia.)

So we’re left with the images, and the sounds. There are enough here for ten lesser movies, and there is unexpected emotional heft to many of them – we fill in the blanks that Anderson has left tantalizingly open. The Master ultimately covers a lot of the same thematic territory as There Will Be Blood, which is an all-but-definitive statement on the concepts. The Master is a long way from a failure, but I can’t call it a great film, either.