One questions whether you could ever live up to the expectations that Anderson has to put up with here, but the filmmaker’s helped matters a little by taking the film on the road for a series of sneak preview screenings around the country, ahead of the official premiere at the Venice Film Festival tonight. So, while the excitement at the press screening this morning wasn’t quite as fevered as it might have been, there was still a hushed anticipation in the build up. In the aftermath, what we were left with is something that shows Anderson’s continued growth as a filmmaker – it’s certainly his most original and distinctive work to date – but also a picture that’s somewhat at odds with itself.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in his first performance since his faux-retirement) is discharged from the navy after VJ day, and proceeds to spend the next several years drifting through a series of jobs. Sex-obsessed and prone to rages, arguably his greatest skill is making potent moonshine on the side, but it’s this hobby that sees him fleeing after a fellow worker is taken ill.
Many of the things you’ve heard or suspected about the film are absolutely correct. Despite stepping away from regular DoP Robert Elswit (who was committed elsewhere) for the first time, Anderson’s film looks phenomenal; replacement cinematographer Mihai Milaimare Jr. truly makes his mark with eye-popping, somewhat nautically color-coded photography that looks especially good projected in 70mm (aided by intricate, reach-out-and-touch it design work). And it sounds fabulous too; Jonny Greenwood’s percussive, unpredictable score might even exceed his astonishing work on “There Will Be Blood.”
Furthermore, Joaquin Phoenix is indeed as titanic as early buzz suggested. Snarling and mumbling, sometimes to the point of inaudibility, Freddie’s clearly haunted by a drunk father and psychotic mother, and by his experiences in war (subtly alluded to without ever being spelled out – he’s a little more lucid and in control in pre-war flashback sequences). Lancaster speaks to him about how man should be seen to be above the animals, and yet Freddie is absolutely a wild animal, impulsive and furious and just smart enough to realize that he’s not very smart at all. It’s a reminder of how fiercely Phoenix’s presence on screen has been missed in the last few years.
But perhaps the element that’s lingered the most for us, even above the fantastic performances, is the rhythm of the film. Languid and dreamlike (aided by some sequences that may be flashbacks, may be fantasies, or may even be time travel, if Lancaster is to be believed), it’s as hypnotic as the ‘processing’ that’s central to the Cause, until you’re released blinking and dazed into the daylight once the credits roll.
It’s this rhythm (courtesy of editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty), along with a relative sparsity of showy set-piece shots, that make it the most exciting and original film, formally, that Anderson’s made to date. There was a sense in his early work – even “There Will Be Blood,” to a degree – that he was a filmmaker in thrall to his influences (not necessarily a criticism, it should be said), but “The Master” feels like something fresh, something entirely his own, and the start of a new phase in the director’s career.
This is particularly true as Anderson eventually settles on emphasizing a story that he’s already told several times before – that of a father and a son, and it’s this side of things that ultimately feels disappointing. An unsatisfying, extraneous final 20 minutes gives the film a coda that makes it clear that it’s the relationship (dare we say bromance?…) between Freddie and Lancaster that has mostly interested the filmmaker, and it feels like he’s going over old territory. In fact, it's curiously distant, the gut-punch power of "There Will Be Blood" or heart-on-sleeve emotion of "Magnolia" or "Punch Drunk Love" both proving absent.
It may be that further viewings and more reflection sees the film become more narratively, emotionally and thematically satisfying. There are certainly more than enough extraordinary elements in the film, and more than enough complexities and contradictions, than we’ll be seeing it again at the earliest opportunity. Or it may be that another look sees the disappointment at the familiar core of the story deepen. For the moment, we’re simply pleased that the film marks an undeniable progression in the career of one of our most gifted directors. [B]