The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s most pared-down and direct film since Hard Eight, is a tale of a friendship thwarted by warring ideologies. It’s the early 1950s, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a World War II vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, trapped in a perpetual state of tormented wandering. Booze and women appear to be Freddie’s only driving concerns, which lead, in the anecdotes that compromise the film’s first half-hour, to a series of altercations and one-night stands, which are accompanied by the consumption of homemade cocktails that are fashioned from ingredients so coarse as to occasionally be fatal. Freddie’s in a terrible fugue state, which leaves him susceptible to the suggestive power of an Other, who eventually appears in the form of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a foreboding flim-flam man who calls himself the Master.
The film’s first hour, which establishes Freddie’s mental instability as well as his blossoming relationship with Lancaster, is particularly remarkable. The purposefully ostentatious aesthetics, which include disorienting canted angles, the unusual use of 65-millimeter film, and Jonny Greenwood’s eerie, jangly score, aren’t merely reminders of Anderson’s art-house cache, but signifiers of Freddie’s narcissism and estrangement from society.
Anderson’s more concerned with psychological portraiture than tightly wound plot developments. The Master is constructed as a series of long sequences that function as arias of despair. Early in the film, there’s a wonderful tracking shot that’s positioned from Freddie’s point of view as he watches a beautiful young woman in a department store as Ella Fitzgerald’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” plays on the soundtrack, and in this moment you grasp that Freddie, beneath his prickly and dangerous bluster, is an intensely wounded romantic who longs to come in from the metaphorical sea.
The film’s narrative concerns Freddie’s ultimately futile attempts to rejoin society by devoting himself to Lancaster’s Cause, an obvious stand-in for Scientology that Anderson just as obviously sees as a crock of shit. The film, typical of Anderson’s work, isn’t a caustic deconstruction of a dubious institution, but a work of empathy, as Freddie’s most clearly tortured by his inability to believe in anything following the atrocities he witnessed in the war as well as another personal heartbreak that’s unearthed by Lancaster’s hypnotic form of “programming.”
Lancaster is also enticingly suggested to have fashioned his Cause for reasons that extend beyond the commercial; he and Freddie bond so intensely and so quickly because both are addicts (Lancaster has a similar penchant for booze, women, and chaos in general) who recognize one another as complementary outcasts. Their relationship ultimately deteriorates because Freddie is as incapable of committing to the Cause as he is anything else. It’s a case of conflicting self-mythologies. Lancaster has fashioned a life and persona that allows him to indulge himself with childlike narrow-mindedness, with only the occasional consternation of his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams). Lancaster has achieved a balance of lifestyle that’s often said to be a pivotal component of the American dream: He can do whatever he wants without particularly sweating the small stuff. Freddie, however, nurses a self-mythology that’s incompatible with Lancaster’s illusory conformity, as he’s an iconoclastic drifter wedded to nothingness, perhaps irrevocably.
People who called The Master nihilistic are missing the point. The film laments the emotional toll of nihilism, and its power resides in Anderson’s disinterest in playing his characters against one another as he did in There Will Be Blood. Anderson portrays the Cause (and, really, religion in general) the way he portrayed the porn industry in Boogie Nights: as institutions that are inordinately influential because they offer the conflicted and disenfranchised an understandably tempting illusion of existential justification and self-fulfillment. Anderson isn’t tricky or needlessly obtuse in asserting this view, as Lancaster, in the film’s most heart-wrenching moment, tells Freddie that he hopes he can one day find his Master, whatever it may be. In America, in the 1950s, in an era as desperate to conform to a quick fix as our current era, that’s probably as personal a confession of love as anyone could offer.
The sheer grandeur of the 65-millimeter image is impossible to convey on any home-theater system, but this Blu-ray otherwise sports an impressive image that's rich in detail and texture. The colors, which were sometimes otherworldly in their vividness in the theater, have a similar intensity here, particularly the crystal blues that characterize the ocean of the early sequences or the sandy browns that dominate the vast deserts that figure into the film's final act. The graininess that Anderson subtly enunciated to link The Master to the cinema of the 1950s has been preserved with tact and finesse. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix is appropriately rich, which most importantly preserves the dimensions of Jonny Greenwood's poetically dissonant score (which, like his score for There Will Be Blood, would appear to be influenced by the work of recently deceased composer Elliott Carter).
The most striking inclusion in the disc's supplemental section is John Huston's Let There Be Light, a WWII documentary that informed The Master's depiction of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The influence of Huston's film is obvious, as there are certain images of soldiers speaking with doctors that reappear in Paul Thomas Anderson's film with only slight changes. Let There Be Light features annoyingly florid narration, but contains revealing and disturbing post-war footage that openly combats the propaganda of the day, and it's also a valuable nugget for cinephiles who revere Huston. "Back Beyond," a short film compromised of deleted scenes, is inessential, but at least offers a refreshing break from the typical assemblage of discarded scenes that appear on most DVDs and Blu-rays. "Unguided Message," a behind-the-scenes feature, is completely skippable. A variety of teasers and trailers round out the package.
Possibly the most misunderstood American movie of last year, Paul Thomas Anderson's most arresting and original work to date ultimately reveals itself to be a great thwarted American love story.