I've just had the privilege of enjoying Paul Thomas Anderson's much anticipated sixth feature film, the eponymous, at the beautiful Astor Theatre in St Kilda, a rather fashionable beach-side suburb just south of Melbourne's CBD. The director and writer Anderson was there for the screening and offered a Q-and-A session afterwards (I naturally jumped at the chance). But the gorgeous old cinema, excitement of a premier, and grace of such an internationally esteemed director aside, was it a good film?
The Master was shot on 65mm film. It's the first film to be shot on such a format, beginning to end, since Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet in 1996, and the screening at the Astor was from a 70mm print. Couple this with lingering close-ups and beautiful scenery, a recurrent pastel blue colour palette, and the result is a visual feast. What Anderson also brings to film is his use of music and sounds, sometimes in perfect harmony and sometimes dissonant, to help along the narrative he builds.
This sort of visual and musical beauty is necessary for the film as it leaves out a strong narrative; it's not so much a film of events and characters' responses, but rather a film where characters are put together, and time marches forward as we learn more about them, more about their relationships, and their true nature. Having this non-narrative sensibility forces Anderson to give the best writing he can, and he achieves it admirably. The plot revolves around two men with their own unique forms of ego-centrism. Phoenix's Freddie Quell is the shell-shocked, alcoholic, sexual deviant, who lives only for the pleasure of the moment. Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is the leader of a growing cult, who has all the answers in the universe and the secrets of happiness, if you're willing to devote your life to having him 'teach' you. These two brands of self-centeredness form an unusual and intriguing marriage between Phoenix's and Hoffman's characters, and it's the love-hate, the peculiarity, and the romance of this relationship which makes the film itself so intriguing.
What will stay with me, more than anything, is the magnificent performance by the lead Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix so entirely inhabits the role, that it's now difficult for me to imagine him as anyone else. Further, the film is told entirely from his perspective. A scene of full-frontal nudity, what we the audience are to make of 'The Cause', and a trick with Amy Adams' eyes enforce the understanding that we the audience see what Freddie sees. As we see the universe in such a way, through the eyes of such a disorganized degenerate, we're left with a wide berth for interpretation. I love that aspect of it, I love drawing one conclusion but being forced to embrace another, equally plausible one.
I do, however, have a nagging feeling that while in the theatre, I felt a dragging towards the middle. Perhaps being accustomed to more story-driven cinema, I was willing something to happen, willing a death or a divorce, and was only given more character exposition. Is this the film's downfall? I don't think so. The disadvantage of writing this review so shortly after seeing the film is that I immediately feel that The Master is a film enjoyed more in retrospect. I enjoy it now more than I did on the drive home, I enjoyed it more on the drive home than I did as the credits rolled, and so on. It is a film which really needs to settle, and is enjoyed best when discussed over a cold beer in the pub afterwards.
I've spent the last week re-watching P. T. Anderson's earlier films, and relative to them, The Master is a strong entry into that esteemed circle, but not the best. I still retain that title for Punch Drunk Love. I must recommend everyone watch this film, P. T. Anderson is thought of by many, myself included, as on the forefront of film making; and this esteem is justified by this his latest work. Because of the nature of the work, it somewhat transcends a star rating, but my best approximation is four.