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The Master (2012)

The Weinstein Company
Blu-ray Disc Released: 2/26/2013

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/5/2013

When it comes to storytelling, movies have an advantage over any other medium. Through the use of sight and sound, the filmmaker has many tools in their arsenal to get their point across to the audience. Yes, plays have visuals and sound, but they are tethered to the stage. It can be argued that books have the advantage, as we paint the pictures with our minds, but movies can be a shared experience. With a movie, a character can tell us what is happening, or the director can use visuals to convey a message. So, when a message gets lost or a connection is not made with the audience, this can be a serious breakdown in the process. This occurs with the Oscar-nominated film The Master.

The Master opens as World War II is coming to a close. Having fulfilled his duty, sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), and many of his colleagues, are sent to a hospital for testing. Following this, Freddie tries to build a life for himself, first as a photographer and then as a migrant worker. While on the run for a possible involuntary manslaughter, Freddie sneaks onto a party boat. There, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who also goes by the name "The Master". Dodd is an author and is also the leader of a group called The Cause. He takes an immediate liking to Freddie (and Freddie's homemade booze) and begins to indoctrinate him to the ways of The Cause, which involve long sessions of questions and a process in which Dodd claims to take people back in time in order to discover their past problems. Freddie travels with Dodd to Philadelphia and then Arizona, defending the man to anyone who questions him. But, what of these questions -- Is Dodd the man he claims to be or is he a charlatan?

The Master is the kind of film which will immediately divide audiences. Not because of the content (although, that is a possibility -- more on that in a moment), but because of its style. This is yet another movie which will spark a debate about style over substance and the amount of overt storytelling a movie must do. Pundits will say that The Master is classic filmmaking and that those who don't understand it are simply naive and uncultured. Those who don't like the movie will say that it's too obtuse and doesn't know what it's about. I have to say that I'm in the middle, but I'm leaning towards that latter argument.

If I were to describe the basic story of The Master to you, as in the above synopsis, it would sound intriguing. A former soldier -- a lost soul -- is taken under the wing of a man who is a self-proclaimed scholar and a born leader. The soldier wants to be a part of this world, but has trouble letting go of his violent past. Meanwhile, The Master's motive's and actions are often strange and we aren't sure what his game is. This story could have made for a great drama, which could have been peppered with a hint of mystery, as the soldier tries to determine if The Master is trustworthy or not.

However, Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson has decided to make a film which is decidedly closed off to the viewer. First of all, none of the characters are likeable. As Freddie enters The Cause, he should be the link to the audience, but he is so violent and strange that we can't relate to him. Aside from any possible PTSD issues from the War, one can't help but wonder if Freddie doesn't have some sort of development delay. Anderson never lets us get close to Dodd. This can be read as an intentional move, as the man would want to be an enigma to both his followers and outsiders, but in a movie, we need something to go on. The most "open" character is Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), a driven woman who won't let anything come between her husband and success.

These characters are placed within a story which should have a solid structure, but doesn't. We are basically given a series of vignettes which show Dodd dealing with his members or Freddie. There is no narrative pace or flow here -- scenes come and go. More importantly, there is no emotion in the film. To call the movie sterile would be generous, as Anderson has somehow managed to suck any sort of pathos or suspense out of the movie. Even when we know that Freddie is going to have one of his violent outbursts, there is little tension. We are simply left as spectators in the film and we are never invited inside.

Having said that, The Master does contain some beautiful photography, as Anderson and Director of Photography Mihai Malaimare, Jr. have put the 65mm camera to good use. Also, Phoenix certainly deserved his Oscar nomination, as he gets lost in the Freddie character -- unfortunately, he went too far into making Freddie a jerk. There has been some talk surrounding The Master, stating that Dodd is supposed to represent Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. If you are approaching the film expecting some sort of sensationalism on this front, don't bother. The similarities may be there, but they are ones which only an expert would notice and The Cause is rarely interesting. The Master represents another artistic misfire from Paul Thomas Anderson, a director who knows how to point a camera at things, but he can't squeeze a doesn't story from them.

The Master opens with another word which has "master" in it on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no distracting grain and no defects from the source material. The image is very crisp, lending it a great amount of detail. The level of detail is good as well, as we can see every line on Joaquin's face. The colors look fantastic and the picture is never overly dark or bright. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which run at 48 kHz and an average of 3.8 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are good, most notably in the party or crowd scenes, as we are treating to sounds coming from the left or right of the screen. These same scenes also offers some notable surround sound effects, and we occasional get a nicely isolated sound coming from the rear speakers. The subwoofer gets involved only during scenes where a large engine is being used.

The Master Blu-ray Disc contains only a few extras. "Back Beyond" (20 minutes) is a long series of random shots and deleted scenes. There are dozens of them, from various parts of the film. Instead of simply being a reel of cut scenes, these are edited together and have an accompanying soundtrack. We see that some scenes, like the trip to the desert, were longer, but there's nothing really interesting here. "Unguided Message" (8 minutes) is simply "fly on the wall" video from the set, some of which shows specific scenes being shot, but most of which is simply the camera prowling the set or location with the squawking of a walkie-talkie in the background. "Let There Be Light" (58 minutes) is a 1946 documentary from famous Director John Huston which explores the issues and treatment of World War II veterans. We can see how some of this influenced The Master. Finally, we get nine different TRAILERS for the film...some of which play more like deleted scenes than trailers.

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.