“Jesus.” That word basically fell out of my mouth when Paul Thomas Anderson cut from black to reveal the first shot of his brilliant film, The Master. Since this is PTA you might have expected some intricate 3 minute tracking shot, but it was just the ocean, and it was beautiful. I have never seen that shade of blue in a film before. It was immediately clear shooting 65mm was a brilliant decision. More importantly, that shot, followed by the dizzying first 15 minutes of The Master revealed Paul Thomas Anderson was working on a different level than most American filmmakers.
Let’s discuss those first 15 or 20 minutes. Simply put, they are perfect. PTA quickly and effortlessly sets the tone of the film while revealing everything we need to know through sounds and images. The assured direction, precise and fluid editing, Johnny Greenwood’s brilliant score, and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance combine to reveal what it’s like to come home from a war. I’ve heard a lot of people question if The Master really says anything. If it’s nothing more than great acting. My response? The Master is about so many things, and one of those things is obviously the way the violence of war drastically affects the way men act in society.
Honestly, it’s one of the best depictions of war induced post traumatic stress disorder I’ve ever seen, and it tackles PTSD in a completely different way than most films. Typically, films that deal with that issue are incredibly subjective, but PTA just observes a man who has been completely broken by what he’s seen and is desperately in search of something that makes him whole, even if that feeling is nothing but an illusion. When Phoenix’s character finds something, or someone, he can finally attach himself to the film really goes to the next level.
The chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman is palpable. The processing scene is down right brilliant, and Anderson’s simple, but precise directoral choices allow these two to make it work so well. When Phoenix slaps himself across the face I felt every muscle in body contract and my stomach tie itself into knots. I knew I was watching something special. Every line or glance ups the ante and they both refuse to back down. As the scene progresses and continues to escalate I was overwhelmed with emotion. Anderson reached somewhere deep inside of me and unearthed long lost feelings and memories.
This scene occurs pretty early on, and it’d be totally understandable if the rest of film was sort of a let down, but it is simply not one of those things. I know a lot of people don’t like the film, and have even heard a fair number of people say it’s absolutely terrible. I have to be honest, I don’t understand how anyone could walk out of this film and say, “The Master is a bad. It’s a poorly made film.” I normally try to avoid film snobbery, but I can’t help myself here. The filmmaking is flawless, and the story is actually incredibly straight forward and very easy to follow. It’s simple really. (SPOILERS) Man comes home from the war. He struggles to assimilate into society. He meets another man who sort of likes him and allows him to join a group. They become friends and fall in love, but they can’t continue to grow together. Man decides to leave. That’s the story (END SPOILERS).
And it’s not like this story is boring. The film is ridiculously entertaining and the pacing is very quick. There are so many brilliant, unique, special, and transcendant scenes that never seem to stop following each other. So where’s the disconnect? I don’t think The Master is anymore challenging than There Will Be Blood, but it’s received a harsher backlash. That should be expected after the insane expectations it had, but I think the real issues is this: The Master wanders more than TTWB and doesn’t end with a BANG like TTWB’s milkshake scene. But this is because The Master perfectly captures the mental state of it’s main character and is exploring something more profound and in my opinion interesting than Daniel Planview’s psychotic individualism. The scenes and plot don’t exactly propel each other. Instead, mental associations and feelings do, and the film left me emotionally drained. I left the theater speechless and in a daze. The Master is breathtaking, gorgeous, emotionally resonant, and truly profound. One of the best films of the decade.