It’s been nearly a month since the first ambush screening in Santa Monica, and The Weinstein Company followed it up with one night stands in Chicago and San Francisco, stoking anticipation for the limited release on September 14. Now Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has finally officially premiered in Competition in Venice before screening as a Special Presentation this coming Friday and Saturday (and a third time on September 16) in Toronto.
Let’s begin this round with Gabe Klinger, writing for Cinema Scope: “There Will Be Blood announced the end of a protracted calling-card phase in Anderson’s career, and The Master, an equally impressive achievement, confirms that his intent is a serious one. Like Stroheim with Greed (1924) or Vidor with The Crowd (1928), his cinema has entered its visionary stage—and boy, let’s hope it stays in it. Anderson may still get called out for his narrative imperfections (see Adam Nayman’s summary of PTA’s faults and virtues in Cinema Scope 50), but there isn’t a cinephile on the planet—at least none in my own midst—who isn’t salivating to see what he does next…. Anderson’s continued reliance on ‘show-stoppers’ (per Nayman) to advance the drama remains mildly troubling. To his credit, Anderson has at least come to the conclusion this time around that he doesn’t need to go out with fire and brimstone—no milkshakes drunk, no frogs…. Lastly, it might be worthwhile to explore some of The Master’s thematic divergences from There Will Be Blood. If the earlier film suggests the corrosive power of industry (oil), let me propose an opposite formulation for The Master: the corrosive industry of power (religion).”
Guy Lodge at In Contention: “Elliptical but hardly indecisive, testy but hardly incendiary, Anderson’s exquisitely sculpted film is about more individual-based values and desires than its grabby advance reputation as a Scientology exposé promised: trust, admiration, sex, kinship. The Master turns out to be many of the things I expected it to be—a sharp evaluation of what we are prepared to believe in exchange for self-possession, a richly textured evocation of American social vulnerabilities in the aftermath of WWII, most inevitably of all, another literate chapter in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ongoing thesis on the positive and corruptive powers of charismatic leadership. What I had not quite anticipated, however, was a romance—much less one between two men…. [F]rom the moment Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) and Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) meet in almost fairytale fashion—the sailor surreptitiously takes shelter in the older man’s boat/castle, only to be mysteriously summoned to the Master’s chamber the next morning—Anderson charts the beats of a relationship as one would a grand love story: seduction, acquiescence, devotion, betrayal and reconciliation, variously shuffled, rinsed and repeated across a robust two-and-a-quarter hours heavier on sinuously compelling micro-conflicts than grand dramatic peaks and troughs.”
“What a ravishing, unashamedly old-school American classic this is,” raves the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “Instead of setting out to mount an exposé of Scientology, Anderson uses it as the springboard to a wider inquiry. Beautifully textured, richly nuanced, The Master probes at the shadows cast by the spotlight of American supremacy. It identifies a strain of self-doubt in an otherwise triumphant 1950s and paints a compelling picture of a postwar prosperity built on the backs of a confused and traumatized people.”
Time‘s Richard Corliss, though, is not won over: “This is Anderson’s sixth feature; except for the Adam Sandler project Punch-Drunk Love, each of the writer-director’s films examines father-son or mentor-acolyte relationships. Philip Baker Hall schooled John C. Reilly as a Vegas gambler in Hard Eight; porn auteur Burt Reynolds promoted well-hung amateur Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights; TV mogul Jason Robards tried reconnecting with his sex-guru son Tom Cruise in Magnolia; and oil baron Daniel Day-Lewis battled preacher Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. Nothing wrong with filmmakers pursuing themes throughout their works; it’s a mark of personal commitment in an industry that distrusts individual identity. The problem with The Master it that it doesn’t extend or expand Anderson’s artistic journey. Indeed, the movie violates a cardinal rule of the father-son or master-servant plot: that the acolyte will somehow change his mentor… The Master expends all its considerable skill on a portrait of the wrong man—a creature not worth Dodd’s time, or ours.”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy predicts that “an argument that will endure for as long as people feel like seeing and talking about the film is whether it adds up to the sum of its many brilliant parts.” Among those parts are Anderson’s “extraordinary command of cinematic technique” and the performances by Phoenix, who’s “never shown anything near the power, mystery and dangerous unpredictability he serves up as the emotionally inchoate Freddie,” and Hoffman, “brilliantly focused, deliciously enunciating [Dodd’s] many theories, sometimes while sweaty and red-faced from inebriation and at all times believable as a man capable of inspiring a faithful following.”
The Master is “a sustained immersion in a series of hypnotic moods and longueurs, an imposing picture that thrillingly and sometimes maddeningly refuses to conform to expectations,” writes Variety‘s Justin Chang. “By dint of its outsider protagonist, the film leaves the viewer with a particularly perverse kind of optimism: When someone promises freedom and offers enslavement, madness may well be a better defense than sanity.”
“Jonny Greenwood’s percussive, unpredictable score might even exceed his astonishing work on There Will Be Blood,” suggests the Playlist‘s Oliver Lyttelton, who otherwise finds The Master “curiously distant, the gut-punch power of There Will Be Blood or heart-on-sleeve emotion of Magnolia or Punch Drunk Love both proving absent.”
“The film is beautifully shot by Mihai Malaimare Jr., with the 1950s perfectly recreated and rendered in lustrous burnished colors,” notes Screen‘s Mark Adams. More from Matt Mueller (Thompson on Hollywood) and Tommaso Tocci (Press Play). Earlier: David Ansen‘s backgrounder in Newsweek and Tom Shone‘s interview with Amy Adams for New York.
Updates, 9/2: “It has the feel of something by Steinbeck or DeLillo,” suggests the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “It has a stunning lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix, a performance quite different from and in advance of anything he has given us before, an achievement that puts him on a par with the young Pacino or De Niro…. The movie takes its own place in what Michel Foucault called the History of Unreason—the various forms of madness that are not included in the official history of the western enlightenment. These are people who sign up to crazy worldviews, and eagerly board Dodd’s wandering ship of fools, and yet their emotional lives are real—and not foolish. It is a movie that may alienate and exasperate some, but its audacity, its formal daring and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, make it simply unmissable.”
The “performances are intensified by the hallucinogenically vivid colours and dreamy shallow focus afforded by the use of an antique Panavision Super 70 camera and 70mm film stock,” notes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “Often, The Master looks like a Douglas Sirk film running a high fever: angled lighting leaves the casts’ eyes in shadow while their foreheads and cheeks glisten sweatily…. After one viewing, The Master already feels like a landmark American movie. It makes words like ‘bold’ and ‘extraordinary’ seem utterly inadequate.”
“[W]hat Anderson is continuing to excavate here is a fear that behind every great man is a totally faulty reason for being,” writes Sara Maria Vizcarrando at Box Office. “Dirk Diggler’s fame proves he’s talentless, Daniel Plainfield’s millions built him a void, and Frank T.J. Mackey’s congregation echoes his inability to love or be loved. Anderson’s powerful men are always building cruelty and futility, and their reward is loneliness.”
Updates, 9/3: The questions Time Out London‘s Dave Calhoun hears Anderson asking are, “why do men such as Dodd and Quell come together? What do they need from each other? How do they sustain each other’s fantasies?… Anderson may keep his drama close to a few key characters, but he also offers a strong, disturbing sense of a world turned upside down by war and of a chaos that allows the strange new order of The Cause to emerge.”
PTA has told Screen‘s Andreas Wiseman that he hopes to begin work on Inherent Vice “soon.” The Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth: “An adaptation of Thomas Pychon’s novel, the project first dropped on the radar in 2010, and shortly thereafter, found financing via Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures who also backed The Master after Universal bailed out. The picture also seemed to gain a lead in Robert Downey Jr., who as recently as last December, was hinting very strongly at working with Anderson.”
Jamie Dunn at the House Next Door: “For all the fiery head to heads that pulsate through the veins of Anderson’s film, the scene to be locked away and kept for the ages is of Dodd sweetly serenading his prodigal son with a plaintive rendition of ‘(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China.’ Scientology is a red herring: This is a father-son love story, and it’s caustic, complex, and utterly compelling.”
Updates, 9/5: “In short, he has gone rogue.” In Scott Foundas‘s interview with PTA for the Voice, the director “recalls the battles he once fought with New Line Cinema (which produced and distributed Boogie Nights and Magnolia) over everything from poster to trailer design and how, on The Master, he has simply done everything himself, creating his own teasers for the movie and uploading them immediately to the Internet—and yes, even screening the film publicly without the approval of his new distributor, Harvey Weinstein…. The Master was supposed to be the movie that broke Anderson’s habit of taking breaks between projects long enough to rival one of his filmmaking idols: Stanley Kubrick. Although, as I point out, Kubrick managed to direct eight features in his first 16 years as a director, whereas he has managed only six. To which a visibly unamused Anderson responds: ‘Oh, fuck off. It’s been no fault of my own!'”
Also in the Voice, Tony Ortega argues that “The Master is still very much about Scientology’s early years, and in particular, it explores three themes that spanned a period of 1951 to the mid 1970s in real life.”
Dennis Lim on Phoenix’s performance in the New York Times: “‘I knew he was going to be good, but I didn’t know he was going to do this,’ Mr. Anderson said. ‘I was unprepared for the level of inventiveness and creative energy that comes out of him. And the level of discipline. By all appearances it looks like he has no discipline, but that’s just a cover story.’ Early on, Mr. Phoenix said: ‘I told Paul I wasn’t going to self-modulate in any way. I wanted to just expose the id.'”
Updates, 9/9: The AV Club‘s Noel Murray recommends “focusing on the times in which it’s set. After the opening shots of Phoenix in the Navy, the scenes of Phoenix being prepared for discharge openly reference John Huston’s documentary Let There Be Light, about mentally ill soldiers; and Phoenix’s performance calls to mind James Dean and the other Method actors who made it into the movies in the ’50s. The era The Master covers, from roughly 1945 to 1952, was a tumultuous one in American culture: it was the age of film noir and psychological realism, but also a time when the suburban placidity for which the ’50s is remembered took root. All of that looms in Anderson’s movie, which deals with human impulses that run counter to the clean, composed America that the PR departments pushed. If I’m holding back from declaring The Master a masterpiece (a status I grant to There Will Be Blood, by the way), it’s only because the film is elusive at times, and difficult, without many bravura set pieces to compensate. But it’s a rich, rich piece of work, from the filmmaker who may be this country’s most vital.”
Update, 9/10: “I came in hoping for the same level of blood-and-thunder as in the Evangelical scenes of There Will Be Blood, whereas The Master is a cerebral experience,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein. “But Anderson has gone about exploring fundamental tensions in the American character with more discipline than I once thought him capable—among them our lip service to individualism versus our sheeplike gullibility, the contradiction generally resolved with drugs and alcohol and a reversion to adolescent irresponsibility. Anderson is a romantic who has earned his nihilism. He clarifies nothing, but leaves us brooding on our own confusion.”
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