Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was my most anticipated film at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Not only because I’ve been a huge fan of Anderson’s work since his breakout film, Boogie Nights, back in 1997, but because I had heard nothing but praise for it from everyone who saw it. So when I got a ticket to the public screening on the last night of the fest I was overly excited and, needless to say, my expectations were beyond reasonable.
It’s the end World War II and Naval officer Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is being sent home. With poor social skills and an appetite for alcohol mixed with paint thinner, Freddie doesn’t fit into the post-war world and is struggling to find his place. On one of his drunken escapades he boards a ship late at night and meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author and pseudo preacher. Dodd is a charmer and a drinker, and Freddie is soon swept into his cult-like group “The Cause” and becomes his top follower and close friend.
Whether it’s Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, or Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Anderson has a way of getting actors to deliver a performance as if it’s their last. The Master is no exception. Hoffman’s eloquent and passionate portrayal of a man who truly believes he is as powerful as he claims is gripping and exciting to watch. Phoenix, who went off the rails and ditched acting a few years ago, returns with a powerful, almost biographical, depiction of a disturbed man lost in the world. Amy Adams also gives an outstanding performance as Mrs. Dodd, and it would be shocking if the three of them don’t get Oscar nominations for their work.
Another highlight of the film was Jonny Greenwood’s jarring score. This is one of the best pieces of music ever put to film. It’s very front and centre and actually helps move the story forward instead of just being in the background. It takes the entire viewing experience of The Master to another level and is sure to be studied by film and music scholars for years to come.
If you’ve followed The Master in the news at all you will know it was shot in 70mm and should be viewed in a theatre that projects it in its native format, which I did at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. To my dismay I couldn’t see a big difference between it and a regular 35mm film though. That’s not to say it didn’t look amazing, because it did and Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography is gorgeous. But it didn’t shock my being the way I had anticipated it would. Maybe if I saw it again in a regular theatre I would appreciate it more in 70mm.
While there are many other things about The Master to get excited over and discuss, I found I didn’t love it the way I thought I would and I definitely didn’t connect to it the way I have with Anderson’s previous films. Yet, there is something so seductive about it that it’s hard not to be mesmerized and enthralled by it. I’m sure with time I’ll come to cherish it more and even consider it a masterpiece. Either way, it’s a solid cinematic experience and you need to see it to judge for yourself.
The Master opens in Toronto on September 21 at the Varsity Theatre in 70mm. It expands on September 28 to most major Canadian cities.
Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Top image: A scene from The Master. Courtesy eOne Films.