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In Los Angeles, when a film is referred to as “70mm” it usually means that the Aero is playing 2001 again. New releases in the format — which, as implied by its name, is a type of film stock larger and more expansive than standard 35mm -— are relatively rare these days, with most effects-driven movies opting for 3D or IMAX instead. So when it was announced that The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s long-awaited followup to There Will Be Blood, would be opening in that most high-resolution of formats, many a cinephile was tantalized.
A wide release begins September 21, at which time you’ll need to be more careful in choosing where to watch it — which should be done in 70mm or not at all. Seeing a post-converted 3D film in 2D is one thing, but to watch something as ambitious as this in any format other than the one it was made in would be as detrimental to your own viewing experience as it is to the film itself.
Not that the film would appear to lend itself to this sort of thing. There are no explosions, superheroes, or chase sequences of any kind. Its premise — a drifter played by Joaquin Phoenix comes under the strange tutelage of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard-inspired title character in 1950 — is clearly that of an autumn prestige picture rather than a summer blockbuster. But at this point, a new work by the decidedly un-prolific Anderson is as much of an event in the art-house world as one by Terrence Malick: The Master is only his second film since 2002.
It’s also one that makes good on its use of the now-rarefied format from the very first frame. Its opening sequence, which is also its most formally accomplished, comes across as a coordinated attempt on the part of Anderson, Phoenix, and composer Jonny Greenwood to disorient us in a way we can’t help but like. Roiling waves crash to shore, coconuts are lopped off a tree with a machete, and Greenwood’s score comes in and out at intentionally off-putting intervals as a group of sailors idle away and start trouble on a beach in the South Pacific. It’s a self-contained symphony of discomfort, not to mention a sly means of putting us in the same frayed headspace as Phoenix’s Freddie Quell.
Freddie immediately comes off as restless within the confines of the naval unit in which we first find him, rudderless when left to his own devices in the aftermath of the war. His at first seems to be a PTSD-inflected malaise of the postwar variety (in an early scene, he’s spoken to by a military doctor about his “nervous condition”), but we see throughout the film that something deeper, more fundamental has been plaguing him for years.
After Phoenix gave what I felt was 2007’s finest performance in what many others considered a failed experiment, I’m Still Here, the film’s effect on his career seemed potentially dire. Suffice to say that this is quite the return. Phoenix is one of few actors who can make every line on his face expressive without even speaking; in 70mm, the effect is amplified tenfold. His physicality here is at times frightening, and easily on par with his quieter, more cerebral qualities — referred to more than once as a “scoundrel” and “silly animal,” he more than lives up to both descriptions.
What Anderson excels at is coaxing brilliant work out of his collaborators — which, on his last two features, specifically means not only his leading men but also Greenwood and cinematographers Robert Elswit and Mihai Malaimare Jr. — and directing them so expertly that he distracts us from the fact that what seems revelatory in the moment is often obvious in retrospect. He beats around the bush for upwards of two hours and manages to get people not to care too much about that, because the pictures themselves are so pretty (and, in this case, massive). Maybe it’s no accident that his latest protagonist is a drifter.
For all his know-how, Anderson either struggles with or doesn’t have much of an interest in sustaining the tension he appears to be carefully building here, opting instead to merely suggest it by way of self-serious pronouncements via preternaturally talented actors who are able to mask the fact that the words they’re speaking sometimes carry little or no actual substance. Scenes that appear to be going somewhere get cut off once Anderson has realized he doesn’t know what to do with them. Much of The Master is spent waiting and waiting for the weightiness to set in and eventually realizing that it isn’t going to. Everything onscreen is put together with the utmost care and skill — a kind of subdued spectacle, given how the intimate proceedings complement and play against their bright, widescreen presentation — but a great deal doesn’t resonate the way it’s meant to.
At the center of the story is Freddie’s would-be initiation — and indoctrination — into the Cause. Thing is, he’s too stubborn (and, to be honest, dense) for it to take. A cult-like group with clear and ultimately beside-the-point parallels to Scientology, the Cause is led by Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, who increasingly finds himself to be the only one standing up for Freddie.
As intriguing as their dynamic can be, and as brilliant as the two central performances are, Anderson doesn’t do much with it once he’s set it up. Freddie is animalistic, erratic, and constantly drunk; the Master is his opposite. Rinse, repeat, and glean from it what you will. For as deliberately vague as The Master’s peripheral concerns are, its core is deceptively simple. Anderson is nearly unparalleled in his ability to dress up his drama in gravitas and prestige but, once shorn of their accoutrements, the ideas behind his work have a tendency to feel slight even as the visuals remain arresting throughout.
Eventually, though, the zero-sum feeling evinced by The Master comes into focus. Anderson’s talent as an image-maker is continually impressive and, even if not every one of his punches lands, all 70 millimeters of this film are stunning. We’re reminded as much by the look as by the actual events of the ways in which Freddie searches for meaning, often in the wrong places; to acknowledge a higher power is also to submit, and for someone like him this may well be one of few lines in the sand he isn’t willing to cross — perhaps at his own peril. Dodd may be a master, but his pupil isn’t much of a servant.
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