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Early Review: Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master' Is Visually Dazzling in 70mm, Enigmatic, Certain to Polarize

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood August 4, 2012 at 3:52PM

On August 3 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, moviegoers were treated to a surprise screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" in stunning 70mm. Anderson and wife Maya Rudolph were both in attendance.
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Formally, "The Master" is gorgeous. 70mm is the way to see the film, if possible. Anderson nails the punchy colors of early 1950s America (a sequence in which Freddie snaps family photos of wholesome, scrubbed youngsters is particularly spot-on), but also the piercingly bright light of the ocean and waterside towns. A recurring shot of the electric blue water in a ship's wake, like the film's score, serves as a punctuation point after Freddie's emotional breakthroughs.

Stylistically and tonally, "The Master" is of a piece with "There Will Be Blood." The score, the editing rhythms and the simmering violence of the two central characters recalls Anderson's last feature and its monstrous Daniel Plainview. Where "The Master" differs from "Blood" is its narrative drive. Daniel Plainview has a relentless focus that steers the film down a clear-cut, tragic path. Freddie, however, is hazy and aimless, and this film largely takes its structural cues from those meandering characteristics. Many sequences are focused on Master's experimentation on Freddie, vignettes comprised of forced repetition exercises seemingly without end. But does all the drawn-out head-bashing help Freddie? This is what the film is asking.

One last thing: Though much attention will be rightly paid to Phoenix and Hoffman, Amy Adams as Master's wife may have the most revelatory character. Without giving too much away, Anderson cleverly includes a few scenes that cause the viewer to re-think the power structures in Master's universe. It is the 1950s, after all, and wives must stand dutifully beside their husbands, even if something rather different is going on behind the scenes. In this regard, Adams' quiet strength as an actress works beautifully.

This article is related to: The Weinstein Company, Reviews, Paul Thomas Anderson, Reviews


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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.