Throughout his career---and increasingly since 1999's Magnolia---director Paul Thomas Anderson's films have been hard to pin down. 2007's striking There Will Be Blood (reviewed on Blu-Ray and DVD) depicted a self-absorbed man and his pursuit of petroleum and profit. This man, Daniel Plainview, is resentful of a young pastor's spiritual advances and leads a desolate, pitiful life at the top. Very loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair's Oil!, There Will Be Blood was largely considered one of the finest efforts from a director with no shortage of wins under his belt. His latest, The Master (2012), offers another subversive, layered and polarizing examination of a lonely, tortured soul and his life-unchanging encounters with religion.
This soul belongs to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled veteran of WWII who's having difficulty returning to civilian life. A fiercely unpredictable loner whose only allegiance is alcohol, Quell drifts from job to job with expectedly disastrous results. He awakens one morning in a drunken stupor after stowing away on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd AKA "The Master" (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic and multi-talented leader of a cult-like group known as "The Cause". After subjecting Quell to the first stage of "Processing" (essentially, a series of probing psychological questions designed to provoke and disarm the recipient), Dodd systematically takes the young man under his wing. But whether he cares to admit it or not, Quell's innate rebelliousness and dependency on alcohol continue to boil under his surface.
Just as Oil! supplied inspiration for There Will Be Blood, John Huston's Let There Be Light (included as an extra with this Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack) sets the groundwork for Anderson's intense character study. Huston's 1946 documentary showed us WWII veterans suffering from psychoneurotic symptoms including paralysis, fear and hopelessness. The Master reminds us that treatment for such handicaps---whether well-intentioned or not---can't always produce positive results because some people just won't change. Popular opinion even likened "The Cause" to Scientology, though one could arguably substitute a number of religions or support groups with similar results. At its core, The Master is Charlatan vs. Philistine.
Though it's easy to admire The Master at arm's length, this intense character study proved difficult for me to absorb at times. The prickly Quell is a frustrated, unlikable wretch who's just as set in his ways as Daniel Plainview, while Dodd serves as the clever showman whose lust for power and popularity provides an equally weighted counter-balance. Some may find it equal (or superior to) the like-minded There Will Be Blood, but the repellance of Quell and Dodd's relationship didn't work for me as well this time around. What can't be argued is the strength of the performances by Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams (as Dodd's steely wife, Peggy), which add more support for what might be unsteady ground in lesser hands. Paired with a memorable score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and striking cinematography, we're left with a tough nut to crack that's certainly worth several viewings. By then, perhaps I'll be processed.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Not surprisingly, this 1080p transfer of The Master looks perfect for all the right reasons. Largely shot in 65mm, image detail is nicely rendered, the film's slightly bronzed color palette looks great and black levels are solid. The Master isn't always a visually ornate production, at least in terms of background locations and set design...but the artistic compositions and occasional flourishes of style really make it stand out. Digital issues, including edge enhancement, noise and DNR don't seem to be an issue at all. Similar to the Blu-Ray presentation of There Will Be Blood, this is meticulous treatment of visuals that demands it.
DISCLAIMER: These promotional images are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
No complaints in the audio department either, though The Master's DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio doesn't intentionally swing for the fences. It's a dialogue-driven production with occasional punches from Jonny Greenwood's hypnotic, abstract score and sporadic bursts of action...and it that sense, it succeeds in the expected areas. Even the most discerning viewers will seldom wish for more (or less) sonic activity than what's presented here, so this mix is perfectly acceptable for that reason. Optional English (SDH) and French subtitles are included during the main feature and all extras, including the trailer gallery.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The packaging and menu interface is eerily similar to There Will Be Blood
, which leads to to believe that director P.T. Anderson has some amount of creative input here. Seen above, the static and silent menu designs are identical on both the Blu-Ray and DVD formats, save for the absence of one bonus feature (listed below). This two-disc set is housed in a multi-hubbed keepcase with reversible cover artwork, one promotional insert and a postcard of The Master in a scholarly pose. A fine-looking package overall.
The similarities to There Will Be Blood
don't stop there, as we get a rather abstract collection of extras to go along with the main feature. Leading things off is "Back Beyond"
(20 minutes, 1080p), which serves up a handful of outtakes and additional scenes with music by Jonny Greenwood. These are sporadically interesting little moments that, on several occasions, were glimpsed during teasers and trailers but never made the theatrical cut. It's also worth mentioning that these clips have been expressively cut together into a complete piece rather than presented in the fragmented format of traditional deleted scenes.
"Unguided Message" (8 minutes, SD) briefly takes us behind the scenes, though it doesn't really provide much in the way of context or detail. It's mostly just footage of the cast and crew between shoots and the limited visual quality doesn't help either. A generous assortment of Teasers & Trailers (17 minutes, 1080p) winds down the film-specific extras. The Blu-Ray also includes another extra, detailed below.
Last but not least is "Let There Be Light" (58 minutes, SD), John Huston's 1946 documentary about WWII soldiers and their encounters with what we now call "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder". A disclaimer states that none of the footage was staged in any way, but the soldiers' road to recovery (via hypno-therapy and related techniques) arrives much too quickly to feel consistently believable. Pacing problems aside, Huston's film is still a fascinating slice of history that obviously inspired The Master, so it feels perfectly at home here. Unfortunately, this is a public domain print and not the 2012 National Archives Restoration of Huston's film. This oversight is probably a rights or budget issue, but it's still a missed opportunity.
I didn't connect to The Master on as many levels as originally hoped, though Anderson's excellent There Will Be Blood took several viewings to completely sink in as well. That's not the only similarity here: both focus on tortured souls and cartoonish interpretations of religion, while the layered performances of our key players carry more than their own weight. Overall, there's certainly enough depth here to encourage repeat viewings or, at the very least, convince established Anderson fans that he's not treading water. Anchor Bay serves up a capable Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack with reference quality video and audio, but the extras are a little disappointing. Recommended, though outsiders should probably rent this one first.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.