Just over a week ago, I had the chance to see an early screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth movie, The Master, projected in 70mm at Chicago's Music Box theater. I have been trying to process my thoughts about the movie since then.
I have been mostly unsuccessful.
What follows isn't a traditional review. I'm not ready to write that, and you guys, having not yet seen the movie, probably aren't interested in reading it. These are some thoughts, mostly unrelated, totally unorganized. Much of this is still being worked through even as I type it.
Note: I was very careful not to include any SPOILERS, barely even discussing the plot or any specifics about the movie. However, if you want to go into seeing it without knowing ANYTHING, wait to read the review until after it comes out. But I think this review is totally safe.
- If I sound schizophrenic -- or waaay too confused -- in my reaction to the movie, know that I am not alone. Following the screening, every critic in attendance was basically tweeting out "I need to see that again before I can really make my mind up about what I saw." Maybe this is because the movie really is layered and obtuse and requires multiple viewings to unpack everything it has to offer. Or maybe it's a case of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, but none of us are ready to accept that. After all, this is PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON. There has to be more to it, right?
- This is my problem. I can't quite figure out what the movie is about. I could recount the plot, but that's not the same thing. Here goes anyway: Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Sutton, who served in the Navy during WWII and is, to put it bluntly, all fucked up. He drinks too much. He gets in fights. He can't keep a job. He meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a religion called The Cause. What follows is the developing relationship between the two men, and an attempt to use The Cause as a way of "curing" Freddie.
- For some reason, the movie became known as Paul Thomas Anderson's "Scientology movie" very early on. It really isn't. Yes, there is a religion that seems to be based on Scientology. Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman is playing a character that appears to be at least partly based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. But The Master is not a takedown nor an exposé on Scientology. It's more concerned with the dynamic between the two men at its center: one who seems totally in control (not just of himself but of his "flock," who actually do refer to him as "master") and who understands not just this world, but also past and future worlds. The other is a fucking tornado of rage and emotion, whose issues extend back much earlier than the war.
- If you have ANY WAY of seeing the movie projected in 70mm, by all means DO IT. If there's a theater within an hour of your place of residence, make the trip. Hell, if there's a theater within three hours of where you live, make the trip. This is unlikely, as there are VERY FEW theaters that will have a 70mm run of the movie. That's because there are very few theaters still equipped to show 70mm. Even the Music Box said they will most likely not be showing the movie in 70mm when it's released later in September (though they did say they may do a 70mm run later this Fall). This is a shame. More than any IMAX presentation, more than any stupid fucking 3-D presentation (with the possible exception of Avatar), the 70mm presentation of The Master is a REVELATION. The images are so clear and beautiful that it's like seeing a movie for the first time. This sounds like hyperbole. It mostly isn't.
- It's hard to imagine a better-acted movie coming out this year. Everyone in the movie is excellent, including Amy Adams in a role that plays both with and against her usual do-gooder typcasting in some clever ways. The Master is basically a two man show, though, and both Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are crazy good. This is Joaquin Phoenix's first movie in a long time (since before his fake I'm Still Here breakdown?), and while he's always been good in everything, he's on another planet here. His performance takes a while to get used too -- it's a lot of mannered slurring and gesticulating -- but there's a scene about a third of the way through the movie in which everything comes into focus. You'll know the scene when you see it: it's the first "processing" scene, in which Hoffman asks Phoenix a series of rapid-fire questions. It's so good it's hypnotic, and it's the scene people will be talking about.
- This is also definitely the best looking movie this year (so far). The photography is perfect. I don't know how he did it, but P.T.A. color timed the movie so that it looks exactly like a movie from the period. He does it better than I've ever seen before.
- It's ok if The Master is not a masterpiece. Not every movie can be. Not every movie has to be. But Paul Thomas Anderson has such an incredible body of work, and has built up such a mystique around himself in the last decade that he's entering the same territory as Kubrick and Malick. There is a crazy amount of pressure and expectation that goes along with that.
- The mention of Kubrick and Malick is not a mistake. The movie is very reminiscent of both directors' work. Don't get me wrong -- it's still clearly a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, and he has found a style that is very much his own -- but he's also a guy who has always worn his influences proudly. His earlier movies owed a great deal to other filmmakers: he had Martin Scorsese's gift for flash and for energy and for creating a perfect moment using pop songs. He had Robert Altman's gift for ensemble work and Jonathan Demme's humanity. There Will Be Blood and now The Master show P.T.A. entering a new phase of his career.
Everyone should see The Master. If you're the kind of person who loves movies and who regularly reads a movie blog, you either a) have been waiting to see this since it was first announced and hate having to wait three more weeks or b) should want to see it, because Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best filmmakers currently working (a case could be made that he's the best, but that's a different conversation) and a new movie from him -- like a new movie from any great filmmaker -- is a big deal.
When the movie is released, let's all see it and come back here to talk about it some more. It's a movie that deserves discussion. It's a beautiful movie. It's a powerful movie. It might be a brilliant movie. I'm just not sure yet.
The Master opens September 21, 2012.