The Master feature

We’re not sure about you, but “The Master” is hovering near the top of our must-see list for the remainder of 2012. Though he has only made six features thus far (including his latest), Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most gifted filmmakers of his generation. Known for creating deeply personal, sprawling, ambitious films -- from his breakthrough with 1997’s “Boogie Nights” (which he made before turning 27) to 2007’s pièce de résistance “There Will Be Blood” -- he is the rare auteur whose uncompromising visions have always managed to find a place within the studio system. As his films have taken longer to coalesce (five years apart for the previous two pictures) the anticipation grows into a cinematic event among his feverous fans. It’s been a long road in driving his latest to the screen (an older iteration at Universal with a different cast for one), but from the looks of the trailer, it will have been worth the wait.

"The Master," a film whose title we may have inadvertently coined, is a 1950s-set drama centered on the relationship between Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic intellectual known as "the Master" (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose faith-based organization begins to catch on in America, and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an alcoholic drifter who becomes his right-hand man. Amy Adams co-stars as the Master’s wife Mary-Sue Dodd while Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty and Jesse Plemons appear in various supporting roles. The film will once again be scored by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (who also scored ‘Blood’) but will be the first shot without Anderson’s regular DP Robert Elswit, instead lensed by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., best known for shooting Francis Ford Coppola’s recent films.

If you’ve heard about the film prior to now, chances are you know it was shot (at least partially) in glorious 65mm and that Hoffman’s character bears more than a surface resemblance to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. On the occasion of the first full-length trailer, we thought it would be a good time to dive into what we know so far about the film and see what a little digging might uncover. We are, after all, hopelessly inquisitive men and women, just like yourselves.

Joaquin Master
"You are an everlasting spirit, Freddie."
The first thing that's striking to those people closely following the film is how similar the narrative of the trailer is to the one presented in the 2010 leaked screenplay which was thought to be a very rough nuts-and-bolts draft (and indeed some of the dialogue was unfinished, with "TBD" notes). Though the script has reportedly been heavily reworked since that draft, it feels very similar to what was on the page then which feels doubly impressive considering how raw it originally read. A former sailor in WWII with an apparent “nervous condition,” Quell (Phoenix) seems to be struggling hard to assimilate himself back into society when he meets The Master (Hoffman). He has a serious drinking problem that causes him to black out and get into fights, leading Dodd’s wife Mary-Sue to wonder if he’s “past help. Or insane.” Some may argue that the original script was a two-hander between Quell and “the Master," and the trailer focuses more on Quell, but the original story and trailer still seem to suggest a battle being waged for the pupil's soul. 

Recently a blogger uncovered that the inspiration for the psychological exam from the first teaser comes directly from a John Huston documentary called “Let There Be Light” about soldiers who suffered psychological wounds from WWII. The latest trailer opens similarly, with a disconnected voice telling Freddie and the other discharged Navy men, “There will be people on the outside that will not understand the condition you men have. Now upon your shoulders rests the responsibility of a post-war world. You can start a business: filling station, grocery or hardware store, get eight figures of land and raise some chickens. If the average civilian had been through the same stresses that you had been through, undoubtedly they too would have developed the same nervous condition.”

Anderson had reportedly also been interested in making something based on the life of filmmaker Robert Downey Sr., who had been in the army in his early '20s, and some of those details may have found their way into this character. “He was interested in my teenage years when I was in and out of prison and the army.” Downey Sr. said, “And I think he thought at one time that that kinda stuff might be interesting. He's heard a lot of stories from me. I remember talking about that. He's talked about it other times but he's got a lot of thoughts on his mind, he's always thinking."

Joaquin Master 2

With shots of Phoenix's face pressed against a window or contorted into a twisted smile, Anderson seems to have tapped into something previously unmined by the actor. (Probably worth noting that he’s also gotten career best performances out of Adam Sandler and Mark Wahlberg.) And speaking of Sandler, Quell also has shades of previous Sandler’s character Barry Egan from “Punch-Drunk Love,” who had trouble relating to other people and was prone to fits of rage. The tracking shot of Freddie running at 1:30 in the trailer even recalls a similar shot in ‘PDL’ of Barry outrunning the blonde brothers. But whatever the inspiration may be, Phoenix looks revelatory in the role and we can’t wait to see his performance in its entirety.