After returning from the Second World War, having witnessed many horrors, a charismatic intellectual creates a faith based organization in an attempt to provide meaning to his life. He becomes known as “The Master”. When he meets a troubled drifter, he invites the man to help him spread the new faith. As their congregation increases, the drifter begins to begins to question the religion he once accepted, the belief system and his mentor (The Master) who gave his life direction.
The movie is sectioned into three acts, each headlined by a recurring image of water (at times churning violently, at times flowing serenely) trailing in the wake of some unseen vessel. The film opens at the close of World War II, with Navy man Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) emptying fuel out of a torpedo to concoct another batch of his powerful rotgut liquor. Freddy seems to be suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress. He is a loner, a creep and a liar; he is sexually driven and an alcoholic, and he can’t hold down a job for long.During the film, he will also create concoctions from paint thinner, coconut water, and something from a medicine cabinet.
We see short chapters, sliced from Freddie’s time after the Navy, showing what it meant to be knocked aside, rather than swept up, in the nation’s postwar boom. Freddie becomes a photographer in a department store, making out with a model in his darkroom, where he brews a cocktail in a chemical beaker, and then, in one extraordinary passage, taking offense at a customer—a robust and portly type, who wants his picture taken—and laying into him, as though ignited by envy at such unattainable well-being. More startling still is the sudden cut to hard, unglamorous gray-greens, and the sight of Freddie hacking the heads off cabbages in a California field. We sense that he is drifting not because jobs are scarce but because no regular slot can hold him or stop him exploding from within. After he serves a potentially fatal cocktail to a migrant worker in a California cabbage field, he hastens to San Francisco and lurches through peacetime as a drifter until some enchanted evening, in 1950, Freddie wanders past a wharf, where a fancy yacht is moored, lit like a Christmas tree. Having nothing better in mind, he hops on board, and the ship sails off, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, with the Stars and Stripes, at its stern, barely visible under a dying sky. Next morning, the stowaway is introduced to a fellow who describes himself, in the first of many questionable statements, as “the commander” of the vessel Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—and then, for good measure, as a writer, a doctor, a theoretical philosopher, and a nuclear physicist.
Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the charismatic founder and magnetic core of a movement known as the Cause, which teaches that all humans carry psychic residue from trauma sustained during past lives.That, among other things, our souls, predate the foundation of the Earth, are no more than temporary residents of our frail bodily housing. Any relation to persons living, dead, or Scientological is, of course, entirely coincidental.
He quickly identifies Freddy as a fellow “hopelessly inquisitive man” and, after sampling some of his homemade hooch, invites him to join his band of traveling cultists. In meetings with East Coast followers, especially Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), we see that the Cause has already attracted many recruits — and doubters, including John More (Christopher Evan Welch), who stands coldly in a doorway at one meeting and fires hostile questions.
Freddy, carries on drinking,drawn in by the polish of Dodd’s silver tongue, soon becomes one of the Cause’s most ardent followers, acting as a literal attack dog against its many critics. Dodd, in turn, keeps welcoming Freddie—part apostle, part prodigal son—back into the fold. His rabid devotion soon draws the ire of Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who fears the angry young man and his ability to rouse her husband’s wild side.
Joaquin Phoenix adopts a strange posture for the role – sloped shoulders and compressed neck muscles – an extreme choice, but it works for him. He also projects a fearsome anxiety as his eyes scan a room; there are flashbacks/fantasies involving a pre-war girlfriend who continued to occupy space in his mind years after she married and had children.
The real impact of the film comes from the performances. An early scene where Dodd “processes” Freddy with a series of increasingly probing questions is absolutely spellbinding, like watching two finely tuned instruments duel in unison. The closing jail scene of these two characters split by a common wall, a la falx cerebri, (separating the brain’s two hemispheres), says it all; perhaps a conflict within all of us. In one scene, notably both men are hauled off to jail, Dodd for embezzling funds, and his sidekick for assaulting the cops. The screen is divided between their two cells: in one, Hoffman stands, relaxed, and leaning on his elbow, while in the other Phoenix whacks his skull on the bunk and stomps a toilet into bone-white shards. The composition alone is open to all manner of symbolic readings, and quite dazzling.
In this performance, Joaquin Phoenix gives 100 percent. The actor’s use of body language, especially the insecure and vulnerable Barney Fife reversal of hands above slouched hips, with rounded shoulders, is brilliant. It’s fun to watch. Here, the actor unzips his torso and willingly let’s us see within, his emotional and physical scars — prenatal included.
With its expansive 70 mm images, The Master almost pounces on you as it announces its epic scope and ambition — even though the impressive vistas of the sea don’t have anything to do with the heart of the film. You also notice that in particular when Dodd mounts a motorcycle on a huge flat plain and roars into the distance.
Shot in 65mm (and displayed in some theaters in 70mm print), the visual scope of the film is literally twice the size of most movies, and Anderson (working with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who replaces longtime PTA collaborator Robert Elswit) fills that extra space with picturesque imagery that will be burned into memory – whether you fully comprehend its meaning or not. From a sequence of Freddie running across a plowed field, to a spectacular shot of him passed out atop a Naval battleship while sailors below toss things up at him – this film could be viewed without sound and it would still tell a beautiful and captivating story. This is the first movie filmed in 65mm (and projected in 70mm, in select markets) since Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996). It’s a spectacular visual experience.
The style may not be necessary but it can be enthralling, especially in an early sequence, when the camera swoops across the ocean toward Dodd’s yacht. (The cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr., was also dp on Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro and visually stunning Youth Without Youth.)
THE MASTER :
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Exec. Producer: Adam Somner, Ted Schipper. Producer: Paul Thomas Anderson, JoAnne Sellar, Daniel Lupi, Megan Ellison. Co-producers: Albert Chi, Will Weiske. Production Co.: Annapurna Pictures. Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson. Cinematographer: Mihai Malaimare, Jr. Editor: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty. Sound: Michael Semanick, Christopher Scarabosio, Matthew Wood, Mark Ulano. Music: Jonny Greenwood. Prod. Designer: Jack Fisk, David Crank. U.S. Distributor: The Weinstein Company. Music supervisor, Linda Cohen; Set designer: John P. Goldsmith; Set decorator, Amy Wells; Costume designer: Mark Bridges; Sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Mark Ulano; Supervising sound editors, Christopher Scarabosio, Matthew Wood; Sound designer, Scarabosio; Re-recording mixers, Michael Semanick, Scarabosio; special effects coordinator, Michael Lantieri; senior visual effects supervisor, Dan Glass; visual effects supervisor, Gregory Liegey; visual effects producer, Andy Foster; visual effects, Method Studios; stunt coordinator, Garrett Warren; assistant director, Adam Somner; casting, Cassandra Kulukundis.
Filmed in: 65mm, 5 perforations, 24 frames per second. Principal photography in: Panavision System 65. Presented in: Panavision Super 70 in selected theatres with _._ track Datasat _-track digital stereo. Aspect ratio: 1,85:1.
“The Master” was shot with a Panaflex System 65 Studio Camera. It was framed for 1.85:1. 80% of the finished film is in 65mm. The remaining 20% is shot in standard 35mm. The reason for using both film formats was a creative choice. The 65mm film stock used was Kodak 5201 (50ASA)
A Minute With: Philip Seymour Hoffman on “The Master”
(Reuters) – Since the release of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie, “The Master”, talk by filmgoers and critics alike has spanned its link to Scientology, themes of control and its Oscar hopes. Much discussion has rested on the film’s main performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays his unhinged protege. Both actors split the top acting award at the Venice Film Festival, where the film debuted.
Hoffman, dispelling suggestions that his character of Lancaster Dodd was purely based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and discussing the broader themes of the film.
Q. You seem to just roll from one great role to the next.
A. “Yes, it’s going awful, I mean, Paul Thomas Anderson … giving me these opportunities. I just can’t bear it.”
Q. How did you create your character, Lancaster, and who did you base him on?
A. “Ultimately it was just knowing what we didn’t want to do. I think most people have been interested about the Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard stuff, and the thing is Paul used that stuff to have a venue to write the story. And a lot of our discussions early on were like, ‘I don’t want to play L. Ron Hubbard because that would be very distracting because that is not the movie.’ So a lot of the choices had to do with how not to be L. Ron Hubbard.
“It is pretty clear we made choices to make sure that the way I behave, the way I talk, it is all very different from L. Ron Hubbard … One person’s religion is another person’s cult. We know that. And so we didn’t want to be too on the nose about it … Ultimately it was about creating a unique person that was a piece of fiction.”
Q. Perhaps fueling that fascination were mysteries about Scientology to begin with?
A. “That’s a worthy discussion, that is a worthy article to write. People’s feelings and what Scientology brings up for people and how would you compare that to other movements of that time and how would you compare that to religion or Catholicism? That is very interesting because to me this guy is the head of anything you want him to be. You know what I mean?
“We always talked about this film being a life-changing moment for both of them, and things happen in your life to change your life. After they happen you think, ‘Did that actually happen? Did I actually go through that?’ Something that is so profound is sometimes so elusive and so hard to nail down. And it becomes a memory and an anecdote and some weird dream.”
Q. People are fascinated by broader themes of what this film is about. What are your thoughts?
A. “It is about an intense emotional connection between two men and how they both need each other, and are both the mirror opposite but ultimately very much alike. So I think all that is very specific and clear in the movie and it creates a strong emotional attachment that both of them are scared to walk away from for fear of finding out they are nothing without the other person.
“I think that is what the movie is getting at. And then what happens, that Paul does so brilliantly – that he doesn’t do in such a simple, banal or obvious way – is he brings in that time period, post-World War Two. He brings in a movement that is somewhat like Scientology, that time-warp kind of movement … It is about all those things and how they feed into the core thing, which is this relationship.”
Q. People also seem focused on the scene where your character sings to Joaquin Phoenix. Can you shed light on that?
A. “I think it is beautiful. And it is not about … sex. It is about intimacy and obsession and wanting to control somebody, because you are so scared to lose them. Anyone who has been in love before understands that. Again, there is a lot of like, well, it must be homoerotic. No. No, can’t men love each other like that, because they do. They really do.”
Q. Was it difficult to establish your own presence opposite Phoenix?
A. “It’s not an everyday occurrence, no, but when I see it I am happy because it makes my job easier. He (Phoenix) is actually playing the part, which is a guy who is obviously severely damaged.
“Lancaster isn’t a walk in the park either. He is a bull in a China shop too. There are a lot of similarities between them if you look hard enough. But they are both pretty volatile guys, but one realizes he wants to control it and the other one can’t.”
Q. What do the Oscars mean to you now that you have one?
A. “I think it is important to respect the attention that gets brought to something that everyone worked really hard on.”
Q. Talking about respect, actors like Meryl Streep sometimes joke about actors’ current high stature. What do you think?
A. “No one wants to be pretentious about what they do or take it seriously, because that is just weird. But I think, too, you have to respect it and to realize where it can take you and what power it can have, I think is important. But that is true of anything.”
Q. Salman Rushdie said recently that movie stars have replaced writers since the ’50s in terms of their influence.
A. “I do feel that there are some really smart people, who are doing that, who are actors. And I think they do it well, I don’t judge that so much.”