Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a harrowing journey into the mind of a cult leader and his unlikely protégé, is deeply problematic on a number of levels. With its lushly disturbing cinematography and a pair of bravura performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, it’s a masterpiece of the filmmaker’s art. But the story itself wanders off into blind alleys and deliberately leaves most of its tension unresolved, making all that effort feel wasted. The home video editions merely continue this trend—they are equally slick, and equally mystifying.
In The Master, drifter Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is a sex-obsessed World War II veteran with a penchant for making and drinking lethal moonshine (paint thinner is a notable ingredient). Unable to hold down a job and on the run for having poisoned a fellow drinker, he falls in with the self-described writer, philosopher and nuclear physicist Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman). (Dodd is clearly in no way based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, not at all, whatever gave you that idea, wink wink, nudge nudge.) In a series of increasingly psychological and increasingly creepy interviews, Dodd—known as “the Master” to his followers—digs into Freddie’s traumatic past and comes to view him as a beloved, if slightly wayward, son.
Anderson skillfully intercuts flashbacks to pivotal moments in Freddie’s life—his romance with a 16-year-old girl, his experiences in the war—with scenes showing his descent into the cult, becoming fanatically devoted to Dodd even as he begins to suspect that the leader is simply making up his teachings as he goes along. Dodd, for his part, develops an almost homoerotic obsession with Freddie, drinking with him over the protestations of his controlling wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), and at one point serenading Freddie with “Slow Boat to China.” It is Freddie, not Dodd’s doubting son Val (Jesse Plemons) or his worshipful son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek), who accompanies Dodd at his most important moments—digging up his buried manuscript in a desert canyon, attacking the police officers who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license. As the film goes on, the two men become trapped in a narrowing gyre, an ever-tightening dance of strangeness and mutual fascination.
Unfortunately, all that tension and staring and bizarre behavior doesn’t really go anywhere. The relationship between Dodd and Freddie is never fully resolved, and while both men are clearly affected by their contact with each other, it’s never clear exactly how they’re affected. The Master is a film full of big ideas about humanity and the nature of obsession, but it doesn’t seem to know what it thinks about those ideas, and it certainly never comes out and says anything definitive about them. The result is two Oscar-caliber performances that never seem to come together into a coherent story, like a pair of gifted opera singers singing different arias from different shows, each paying no attention whatsoever to the other. It’s pretty noise, but it’s still noise.
The single-disc standard edition DVD (Anchor Bay Entertainment/The Weinstein Company, MSRP: $29.98) contains a sparse handful of features. The foremost is “Back Beyond,” a 20-minute collection of deleted scenes and outtakes set to music in such a way as to form a kind of surrealist short film. “Back Beyond” is just as striking as the rest of The Master, and just as elliptical, though whether anyone wants to watch Phoenix have even more sex with a sand sculpture remains an open question. There’s also the obligatory making-of short, in this case an 8-minute feature called “Unguided Message.” Appropriately for such a polarizing film—one either loves the twisted characters and unresolved plot or regrets ever wasting 138 minutes on them—the standard DVD takes the attitude that anyone unwilling to shell out for the Blu-ray is clearly undeserving of any more of Paul Thomas Anderson’s unique vision. And that’s probably a fairly accurate assessment; serious PTA fans will want to pore over every glorious 65-millimeter frame of The Master while more casual viewers will likely be so repelled by its content that they don’t want to linger in its world.
Strangely, though, the two-disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack with digital copy (MSRP: $39.99) adds only a single bonus feature to the mix—a copy of “Let There Be Light,” John Huston’s 1946 documentary about World War II veterans recovering from wartime psychological trauma. The documentary, banned by the U.S. government when it was first produced, has since become a classic piece of Americana, even if it does give the false impression that post-traumatic stress disorder can be quickly and miraculously cured. The short provides a welcome reality check to Freddie’s incipient madness, but it also shows up The Master quite handily as it reaches the firm (albeit misleading) conclusion that recovery is easily possible.
For hardcore Paul Thomas Anderson buffs, the Blu-ray edition of The Master is a worthwhile investment, if only for the picture quality and the Huston touch. For anyone not drawn in alongside Freddie and Dodd, even the standard DVD is a waste of money. How’s that for a masterly trick?
The Master is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.