More often, the word ‘event’ in cinema is in reference to a blockbuster based on a classic book or comic, or featuring eye-popping visual effects. Audiences flock to the local multiplex in droves to be blown out of their seats by loud noises, big explosions and bigger thrills. There are those rare cases, however, where an ‘event' picture is something else entirely: an artistic event, a new work by an important artist. In his first film since ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2008), American filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson returns to the screen with his long-awaited ‘The Master’. The anticipation has been at fever pitch for months for this film, and breaths were held to see whether this new movie from a man already responsible for many true American classics would live up to its lofty expectations.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is the ultimate lost soul. Returning from service in the Second World War a debilitating alcoholic and burning with violent anger, he wanders through 1950s America from job to job, random sexual encounters and violent confrontations. In an intoxicated state one night, he wanders onto a yacht owned by Lancaster Dodds (Philip Seymour Hoffman), "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher". Passionately supported by his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), Dodds is the leader of a new religious movement, The Cause. The ever-growing congregation follow Dodds’ teachings as dictated in his writings, and refer to their leader as The Master. Seeing in Freddie a soul in need of guidance and direction, Dodds takes him under his wing and tries to help this broken man as best he can.
The first mistake to make with ‘The Master’, and one that I made myself, is to expect something along the lines of the fire and brimstone of ‘There Will Be Blood’. In almost every way, this is a very different film, though no less intoxicating or staggering an achievement. In all the ways that ‘Blood’ was thunderous and furious, ‘The Master’ is a quiet, considered, almost romantic film. Anderson has long been acknowledged as one of the most original and important voices in American cinema, and with each film has justified that praise. This is an incredibly beautiful and moving film. Anderson’s screenplay, though fuller than the minimalism of ‘Blood’, is still poetic and simple. Rather than telling the story of a cult religion, ‘The Master’ is a character piece with the cult as its context, and this is a wise and intelligent decision. There is even a suggestion, in some scenes, that dialogue is being used less for exposition and character development than aural texture, especially in relation to the fractured mind of Freddie.
Technically, it is flawless. The cinematography from Mihai Malaimare Jr is breathtaking, evoking the washed-out, sunny glow of the 50s. Anderson and Malaimare chose to shoot the film in 70mm, the first time a film has been shot in this format in over 20 years, and the level of detail this format allows is both staggering and vitally cinematic. As with Anderson’s previous films, ‘The Master’ demands to be seen on the big screen to be truly appreciated. The editing is considered and expertly executed, and though the film runs at 144 mins, you never feel the passage of time. It pulls you in and intoxicates you. There is a sadness, a dream-like quality to this film. The production design is specific, and perfectly executes a post-war Americana. Once again, Jonny Greenwood delivers a mesmerising and distinctive score, very different to his previous work but in keeping with the tone and conviction of the film.
Not much really needs to be said about the performances. If you want to see what true acting is, you don’t need to look any further. Phoenix, Hoffmann and Adams are all staggering, delivering possibly their finest performances to date. Phoenix is a force of nature, brutal and animalistic. His is a performance of the body rather than the mind, and the degree of physical detail is the most impressive since Heath Ledger’s Joker. Hoffmann is the intellectual linchpin of the film, sturdy and immense. In his hands, you find yourself as intoxicated by Dodds as his congregation, with his charm and charisma. What is most successful is the intense chemistry between these two men. The moment they appear on screen together, there is an immediate and palpable connection. Freddie and Dodds represent two sides of the same coin, and in Freddie, Dodds sees a realm of the human condition he cannot approach within himself. Amy Adams gives a furious and passionate performance as Dodds‘ devoted wife and, in some ways, Freddie’s nemesis. Her devotion to her husband is violent, and Adams attacks this with skill and vigour. This is easily her finest performance - gone is her mousy innocence and naïvety; it's a credit to Anderson to see this fire within Adams and to give her the chance to let it out.
Phoenix, Hoffmann and Adams are all staggering, delivering possibly their finest performances to date.
‘The Master’ is not an easy film to digest at first. Like any great work of art, it doesn’t reveal its secrets easily, and rather than moving towards a great climax like ‘There Will Be Blood’, it simply brings itself to a justified and exquisite final note, like a delicate piece of music. Where ‘There Will Be Blood’ was a film of God, this is a film of Man, grounded in flesh and blood. Films like this are so rare, and show us exactly what cinema is capable of. ‘The Master’ lives up to all expectations and, by heading in an entirely different direction than Anderson’s previous work, exceeds them. This is an important, vital and beautiful film, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen, or you will probably ever see again.
Back in October, I was lucky enough to attend the Melbourne premiere of ‘The Master’ at the beautiful Astor Theatre, where the film was presented in its original 70mm format. The theatre was packed to capacity, and the excitement was palpable. As well as being given the rare chance to see the film in this format, the big event of the night was a live Q&A following with Anderson himself, who had flown to Australia with the film to attend both the Sydney and Melbourne premieres.
In conversation with film critic Martyn Pedler, Anderson was surprisingly candid about his experience making the film and his career. When asked about the more romantic and subdued nature of the film, he described it as being on a "minor key", rather than the "major key" of film such as ‘Boogie Nights’ (1997) and ‘There Will Be Blood’. For Anderson, the real joy comes from the writing process, and he sees himself as a writer first and foremost. Speaking with praise for Kubrick, Nolan and (unexpectedly) Seth MacFarlane, Anderson offered the audience a chance to engage with his creative practice, and graciously opened the floor to questions from the audience. It was a truly thrilling evening, and a rare and precious opportunity for the general public to hear from such an important international artist.
The film itself looked stunning in 70mm, with the Astor one of the few cinema palaces in the world still capable of projecting in this format. This December, the Astor will host a week-long special engagement of the 70mm print of ‘The Master’, and I cannot recommend enough seeing it during its run. For details, go to www.astortheatre.net.au.
Special thanks to Roadshow Entertainment and the Astor for hosting this very important event.