The Master Blu-ray Review
“He’s making all of this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?”
The one being asked that question is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a drifter who, having just been freed from WWII, has more holes than most of the fallen. His plans to make ends meet include making batches of moonshine and taking a position as a portrait photographer. Those prospects fail after he, respectively, poisons a fellow worker and gets into a physical altercation with a customer. With nowhere to turn and a bellyful of liquor, he stows away on the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a wealthy writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher, and leader of The Cause, which sounds ominous for good reason.
Dodd, finding an immediate bond with Quell, invites him into his circle, the bulls-eye of which is The Cause. We find out soon that Dodd is a man obsessed. In a speech at his daughter’s wedding, he tells an anecdote about a dragon. He teaches it commands to sit, to stay. He wrestles it, puts it on a leash, takes it for walks. “Next, we’ll teach it to roll over and play dead.” We wonder, Is Freddie willing to roll over? He has spent his life psychologically bruised, an orphan to the world, a sex-obsessed alcoholic. He is a time bomb constantly on the brink of detonation. He is not one to allow himself to be led by a leash, and yet there he is, on the Dodd’s porch and in his grip, where he can be controlled.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER is inspired (at least in part) by Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. But that doesn’t mean it’s out to belittle Dianetics or Hubbard. (After a while, religions, however favorable in the public eye, end up embarrassing and exposing themselves for what they really are. For example, Dodd’s stance that “man is not an animal” outs him as a hypocrite, seeing as he leads his cult like sheep.) It’s unfortunate that some will only see the religious aspect of the film. But there is much more to take away. Would we be easily swept away by someone like Dodd? Would we notice if a leash was put on us?
Guided by a nerve-racking score by Jonny Greenwood (who also did THERE WILL BE BLOOD), THE MASTER is the latest masterpiece from Paul Thomas Anderson, who has made at least three before. THE MASTER isn’t his best, but it is his most challenging. It will test the patience of the audience, who will want answers and may be be too frightened of the characters and the story.
Much of it is unsettling. That is in due part to the performances. Philip Seymour Hoffman has never had a role like this, but he has the presence and believability to pull off Dodd and make him the fearful yet fearing man he is. Amy Adams, as his pregnant wife, gives a complex role to a character that could have easily been pushed to the wayside. And then there is Joaquin Phoenix, who, like the aforementioned costars, earned an Academy Award nomination for his turn. Phoenix gives, as far as this reviewer is concerned, one of the best leading male performances ever, ranking with the likes of Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT and De Niro in RAGING BULL. It is a raw performance, something maybe only Phoenix (on the rebound from his reclusive rapper shtick from a few years back) was capable of. Watch him during the Processing scene, where he proclaims his passion and need for a girl back home, or the cell block scene, where he smashes a toilet into pieces and nearly kills himself through self-bruising. In those two scenes alone, you can see why Phoenix is one of the best actors today.
Video: 1.85:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. As THE MASTER was shot in 65 mm, anything short of a stunning video presentation would have been disastrous. While the Blu-ray format can’t fully realize the detail of 65 mm, this is still one spectacular-looking disc, with every frame showing up with perfect detail and clarity
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. This Blu-ray also offers a very impressive audio transfer, with clean dialogue, a clear soundtrack (from “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” to “Slow Boat to China”) and a fully effective Jonny Greenwood score.
Back Beyond (19:59): In lieu of the traditional collection of separated outtakes and deleted scenes, the discarded footage has been edited together as something of an expansion of THE MASTER, with the aid of Jonny Greenwood’s score.
Unguided Message (7:59) is a behind-the-scenes look at THE MASTER, with on-set footage from various locations.
Let There Be Light (58:06): This is John Huston’s 1946 documentary, which looks at PTSD in WWII veterans, served as an inspiration for THE MASTER.