The Master is an intense study of three Masters, despite its title suggesting something quite singular. One is the Master of “The Cause,” a cult-like religious group, another is the Master of his seemingly insane self, and the other is the director, Paul Thomas Anderson himself. And there we have it. That is all. The film is a complex character study of these three and the people around them. Even though the director never steps in front of the camera, there is as much interaction happening between the characters onscreen as there is between the actors and the director. The film does not investigate its surroundings or setting, however. Even the story and cinematography serves as a support for the characters. I find this both a blessing and a curse, because even though the film was a wonderful and beautiful experience, I feel like it could have been a better film if it had taken the time to put us in the setting of the 1950’s.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those unique directors who has a perfect track record. The Master is his first film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which has gained almost unanimous praise as being one of the finest examples of filmmaking in our modern age. He is far from being done. The Master is superbly directed. Writing, cinematography, and acting work in perfect synchronization. Along with many of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Anderson both writes and directs. This allows for his style and his voice to permeate the entirety of the film. And it certainly does this. There is an overall sense of unity in the film. Everything that we see on screen supports everything else. This is classically good direction.
It will be an devastating shame if both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix do not win the best actor and supporting actor Oscars this year. They are truly that good. Utter genius acting. The film is meant to be an actor’s movie, and they certainly take advantage of that. Hoffman, who plays the Master of The Cause, genuinely seems to both believe and not believe what he is telling people. Phoenix, who plays an alcoholic with PTSD, is utterly insane, but seems perfectly aware of this fact and perfectly content with who he is. While both of these characters certainly have some exaggerated qualities to them, the acting is mostly a subtle affair. It’s all about what’s behind the eyes. When an actor can make the audience totally convinced of their character’s bombastic and enigmatic exterior selves, while also making us totally convinced that there is a largely unseen interior separate to that, the character seizes to be a character and transitions into the realm of being real. This is rarely achieved, but when it is, it is highly praised. The fact that there are not one but two actors in the same film that can do this is outstanding.
This is not to say the other actors did a bad job, either. On the contrary. Many of the peripheral characters seem just as nuanced and deep. The difference is that we do not see as much of them, and cannot get the same impact from them because of this. One of my favorite characters is Peggy (Amy Adams), The Master’s wife. She is largely on the sidelines, being the supportive and faithful wife. However, we catch the occasional glimpse of her in a state that shows she is the least confused of anyone. She is almost more of a believer of what The Cause has to say than The Master himself. In addition, we get the sense that she is in many ways, more of the author of The Cause’s teachings than The Master as well. Her character is fantastic because there is much more going on under the surface than she allows herself to show, and convincing us that this is the case is a huge achievement on Adam’s part.
The Master was shot almost entirely on 65mm film. Certain scenes were shot on 35mm in the effort to create a stylistic change and heighten the sense in certain scenes that we are watching a movie. I had the intense privilege of seeing the film as a 70mm projection (the first time, in fact, that I had ever seen a film projected in this form). This required a bit of travel, however, since, there are no 70mm capable screens in my area. It was worth every penny. If one has the opportunity to see the film in this form, do it. Even if it means a weekend trip to another state. Do it. Do it. Do it. The 70mm projection was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It looked so intensely real, but at the same time, incredibly cinematic. The 65mm cinematography was so unbelievably beautiful to see in this format, that my mouth dropped open during the first shot of the film. All other theatrical methods pale in comparison. Even IMAX, which has consistently been praised as the “highest” format ever conceived, pales in comparison to plain old 70mm. IMAX, I have realized, tries to be too much like reality. It is a huge screen, taking up every corner of your vision, and because of this, the audience tends to stop believing they’re in a movie, and starts believing they’re watching reality. In my opinion, cinema is cinema, not reality.
A quick technology lesson: 65mm is a type of film that is used to shoot both regular 65mm and IMAX films. “Regular” 65mm takes up 5 perforations per frame, resulting in roughly the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. IMAX takes up 15 perforations per frame, utilizing horizontal transportation of the film through the camera, which results in roughly the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. When this film is projected, it has been printed from a 65mm negative to a 70mm print (which is wider because of the soundtrack area).
The use of 65mm shooting is classically attached to epics. This results in a lot of landscape shots, vast vistas, etc. Of course, The Master has almost none of these. Instead it treats the actors’ faces as the landscapes. Using 65mm on this film states that this is an “epic film of people.” Because of the larger negative, the cinematography is very precise. Every close up is handled in such a way that only a thin portion of the face is in focus. On slightly wider shots, the characters are the only thing in focus. Very rarely are we treated to a true wide angle shot. Truly, the characters are the main focus of the film.
Some of the most beautiful shots in the film are the close ups where the true nuances of the acting is seen deep in the eyes. Occasionally, we are treated to classic beauty shots of women. However, instead of coating the lens with vaseline to create a frustratingly out of focus shot, the cinematographer has blurred everything except the woman’s cheeks, lips, and eyes. It looks gorgeous, and it gives a true glow that the vaseline always wished it could accomplish.
70mm projection aside, this is truly one of the more beautiful films of our modern age. Color is used to outstanding effect, texture and pattern are important and repeated many times to make cinematic links between scenes, and faces are gorgeously lit. I would have liked the camera to back away from the actors occasionally, letting us take in the environment, however, as shot-reverse-shot structure goes, there is very little cutting and the camera tends to gaze at one actor at a time, for a long time, and I can respect that. It is able to highlight those fantastic performances because of how long the audience can truly watch them for, without breaking away.
The Master is a must see. It is not quite as perfect of a film as There Will Be Blood, however, it is intensely beautiful, strange in all the right places, and actually quite humorous. In fact, I found the film entertaining enough that the film felt like it was 90 minutes long. The acting is incredibly impressive, and the writing gives us no more than we need to know. This will sweep the Oscars.
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(All ratings are out of five, with halves)
Art Direction: *****
Overall “Film as Entertainment” Rating: ****
Overall “Film as Art” Rating: *****