Poster designer Dustin Stanton has a history with Paul Thomas Anderson, devising the ad for the director’s Punch-Drunk Love while working with BLT & Associates, and creating the unforgettable one-sheet for There Will Be Blood while employed by Concept Arts. Now an independent artist, Stanton has been followed by his auteur collaborator, and has easily outdone himself with the poster for The Master, Anderson’s forthcoming sixth feature. Focusing on a drifter (Joaquin Phoenix) who, in the early 1950s, finds apparent salvation from alcoholism and malcontent with a budding religious group, the film is served well by Stanton’s glass-half-full approach, which implies a skepticism about the drifter’s turning point, and seems to question whether or not his saviors’ murky world is indeed better than his own. There’s a host of meanings one could ascribe to this handsome image, which easily sits in the top tier of 2012 film posters. Stanton first marries the elements of liquor and the sea, as the cultish group reportedly gets its start on a boat (where much of the film takes place). There’s also the dichotomy between Phoenix’s bobbing-through-life apprentice and his titular mentor (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whose credibility may just be going down by the head. And if you care to take the bait, there’s always the matter of the title itself, which seems an incidental reflection of Anderson’s ego.
This is the third Anderson teaser poster to be dominated and largely defined by text, following There Will Be Blood’s gothic book cover and Magnolia’s dictionary-style font, which sits atop the now-iconic sight of falling frogs. Like the latter, the ad for The Master employs a visual theme of descent, leaving uncertain if it’s a fall from grace or a drop into betterment. If the new film’s painterly trailer is any indication, it’s likely that both scenarios apply, as Phoenix’s character seems as distraught after imbibing his master’s medicine as he does rudderless before the two meet. Or is this fictitious shot of a fine vintage merely a representation of life being sucked out, like a serum being pumped from a syringe? With the reverse also possible, i.e. poison being removed, Stanton’s work may be the most simply loaded of its kind since last year’s rumpled Shame sheets.
Apart from its appearance as one of the most artful and enticing films on the 2012 slate, The Master is generating much of its buzz from a Scientology controversy, as the movie’s plot holds uncanny parallels to the early days of L. Ron Hubbard (the boat setting applies, as does the post-World War II era and Amy Adams’s character, Mary Sue, the name of Hubbard’s wife). Members of Hubbard’s eccentric following have voiced outrage about the film, particularly over dialogue that claims Hoffman’s preacher “makes things up as he goes along.” It’s a line that apparently rattled Tom Cruise, Anderson’s pal and Magnolia Oscar nominee, for whom an early cut of the film was screened. Cruise’s recent headlines can only be good for The Master, which, in turn, will likely be bad for Scientology at large, capping off a year that’s placed the religion under a highly judgmental microscope. If the speculations are true, and Anderson does intend for his latest to be an unofficial, skewering biopic, then there might not be much ambiguity about this poster after all. In the end, what it depicts might not be the layered plights of a man, but the final draining down of Scientology’s mystique.