Paul Thomas Anderson has a taste for the epic. It was always there, from the sprawling spectacle of “Boogie Nights” (1997) to the experimental spider web narrative of “Magnolia” (1999) and the magnificent fireball of ambition and greed that was “There Will Be Blood” (1997).
“The Master,” Anderson’s sixth feature, is epic, but in its own way. Shot in extravagant 65 mm, an archaic format once reserved for event pictures like “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968); ripe with lush images of churning ocean and panoramic desert vistas; and featuring towering performances from big stars, it has the bones of an epic story in the usual P.T. Anderson vein. But “The Master” is a different animal altogether. It marks something of a turning point in the director’s career. “There Will Be Blood” wasn’t only the culmination of Anderson’s grand vision, it was the high-point in his career as a maker of conventional films.
Let me explain.
As original and creative as Anderson’s films have been to this point, still, they all tell a cohesive–if sometimes meandering–narrative. Character is always the priority, but it’s generally sculpted through a traditionally satisfying story arc. Even “There Will Be Blood,” a character study if there ever was one, draws much of its power from the larger arc of a nation in turmoil, struggling to find its identity between the warring–and ultimately indistinguishable–influences of industry and religion, which is complemented by thematically evocative characters who undergo noticeable change. Daniel Plainview, for example, was always an asshole, but by the end of “Blood” he’s deteriorated into a man-shaped mass of venom and depravity.
“The Master,” conversely, is more a messy collage of brilliantly crafted, loosely related scenes than a neatly packaged story. Joaquin Phoenix’s sex-crazed PTSD-sufferer, Freddie Quell, seems to be ever-deteriorating, but never deteriorated. Likewise, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic L. Ron Hubbard-esque Lancaster Dodd is stuck in a loop of suppressed sexuality and self-justification. The two of them seemed destined to remain in an eternal struggle for mutual acceptance. Neither has really changed much by the end of the story. In this sense “The Master” is Anderson’s first real foray into truly experimental film, and has more in common with a Harmony Korine photomontage than it does a typical prestige picture.
“The Master” is also unique in Anderson’s filmography in terms of style. Whereas his previous efforts bore the stylistic fingerprints of his idols–“Boogie Nights” was his Scorsese picture, “Magnolia” his Altman picture and “There Will Be Blood” his Kubrick picture–“The Master” is almost astylistic. The intricate long takes and tracking shots of “Boogie Nights” are gone, and only traces remain of the arthouse flourishes so characteristic of “Punch-Drunk Love.” The camera is conspicuously immobile, mirroring the maddening static of its subjects. The effect is a film that is at once more rigid and traditional, and more amorphous and subversive than anything he’s ever done. Whether that makes it a success is another matter altogether.
It’s certainly a thoughtful picture. From allusions to death and rebirth, the suggestion of a kind of Freudian struggle between two facets of the same character, a compelling portrait of post-war malaise and religious fervor, to a subtle examination of the nature of belief and power dynamics, “The Master” has a lot to offer the attentive viewer. But it’s not a masterpiece in the same way “There Will Be Blood” is. Instead, it feels more like the first unsure steps into uncharted territory by an otherwise uncommonly confident director.