The Master (Blu-ray Review)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, finds Joaquin Phoenix’s character being absorbed into the world of a charismatic intellectual played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  The result is a film that is ambitious, greatly acted (Phoenix, Hoffman, and Amy Adams have all found themselves Oscar nominated for their roles), expertly filmed, but also challenging to fully involve myself in.  For a film that is so centered on two key performances, I felt an odd distance to the film as a whole, which made it difficult for me to embrace, despite having so many great scenes throughout.  Matching up with other films that could be considered too esoteric for mainstream audiences (Tree of Life), I will be curious to see where The Master ends up standing within Anderson’s body of work, as far as the director’s fan base is concerned.  Regardless, the film is beautiful to watch (its cinematography is one of the biggest Oscar snubs of 2012) and looks wonderful on Blu-ray.  Continue to learn more about my thoughts on this home media release.


The Master is set in the 1950s and revolves around a lost soul played by Joaquin Phoenix.  Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a troubled and tortured World War II veteran who has become a drifter.  His main purpose in life appears to be finding women to sleep with, getting into fights due to his perpetual surliness, and behaving generally disingenuous.  An added bonus is that Freddie is able to make moonshine from basically anything he can get his hands on, which includes bread and paint thinner.  After running away from another difficult situation, Freddie wakes up one morning having stowed away on a ship belonging to a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Dodd describes himself as a number of things to Freddie, proving his intellectual worth for himself, but also states that he is a man, just as Freddie is.  The two quickly form a bond, with Freddie seemingly being very taken by ‘The Cause,’ which Dodd represents.

Known as “Master”, Dodd is the head of a faith-based organization, which had its inspiration from Dodd’s own published work.  The Cause has many followers and a supposed purpose of returning man to his inherent state of perfection.  Within this group are the many members of Dodd’s family, including his wife Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), who is a key figured in Dodd’s own life, as well as one who is quick to understand the kind of person Freddie is and question whether he is a suitable member for The Cause.  As the film carries on, we see what lengths the friendship between the two men is willing to go through, as Dodd grows in his state as a confident showman, while Freddie straddles the line of fully committing himself to The Cause and drunkenly marching to the beat of his own drum.

Leading up to the release of The Master, I found it interesting to learn that Anderson had chosen to shoot on 65mm film.  This sort of format is generally reserved for a film of epic proportions, but The Master is much more of an intimate film, which happens to utilize a larger canvas in a few instances (Anderson’s own previous film, There Will Be Blood, would have easily been a better candidate).  Having originally gotten to see the film through a 70mm projection, regardless of the beautiful cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr., when it comes to showing off some of the more open areas in the film, the largest thing of note is Joaquin Phoenix’s face, which Anderson takes many opportunities to keep within the frame.

This is important, because it leads me into these performances, which are pretty fantastic all around.  Phoenix, in particular, is frighteningly good as Freddie.  After coming back from his awkward stage, which turned out to be a hoax that he was committed to for the sake of a film, I’m Still Here, Phoenix has returned to the big screen in an impressive performance. He manages to once again go all out for a role that requires an incredibly amount of work to be as convincing as he is.  Freddie is complicated, given the nature of the post-traumatic stress that he is suffering through, which leads him to be something of a vulnerable scoundrel, with an appetite for sex and violence.  Everything Phoenix does in this part is effective enough in not at all betraying the persona he has taken on, from his anger to the way he talks, as the camera closes in on the snarl in his upper lip.

True to form, if Phoenix is giving it his all, then Philip Seymour Hoffman is going to do the same; and that he does.  I am not going to pretend to know a whole lot about Scientology and how closely this story has elements that mirror that organization, but from what I have seen of L. Ron Hubbard online, Hoffman is seemingly doing something that channels both him and Orson Welles.  As Dodd, Hoffman has to play things at a much more mysterious level, given that we must question whether or not he is a charlatan.  Dodd is a man who has all of the answers and seems quite proud and confident in his work and with those who follow his lead.  Still, regardless of how easily he may be able to explain his stances, Dodd is no stranger to lashing out angrily, with rage continuing to boil underneath the surface for him, when it comes to defending his own points that he is set to argue for, as he is steadfast in his beliefs.  These are all qualities that Hoffman can pull off well and he does so here.

I should also take the time to point out Amy Adams’ excellent work as Peggy Dodd, which was a performance that I thought could go overlooked, given that she is not as majorly featured as Phoenix and Hoffman, let alone as especially carved out as a ‘big’ character, but it wasn’t as she has garnered acclaim in her own right.  Her role is quite pivotal, as it helps to provide further perspective on Dodd as a character and delve into what factors go into believing in The Cause.  The way in which she must upend the type of qualities that make her a generally likable presence suggest all the more that Adams is up to the task of performing at a high level to balance out the other strong lead performances in The Master.

Putting aside the lead performances and the technical skill required to make this film look and sound as good as it does, which I will address again later, there is a factor of how involved with the film that I felt did not deliver as well as I would have hoped; especially given my fondness for Paul Thomas Anderson’s past features.  While I continue to believe that Anderson is one of the most ambitious and interesting filmmakers currently working, it put me off to not feel like The Master was going to give way to me wanting to revisit it as frequently as I do with his other films and continue to evaluate my thoughts on it in the future.  I say this with There Will Be Blood in mind, which is a long and dark film, but one that still accomplishes a lot and has many things about it that allow me to continue enjoying my time re-watching it.

To put these thoughts into more prospective, it is not that I needed The Master to be a film that I would necessarily be happy to re-watch, but I think it does say something for the film to not have me continually reflecting on the it, let alone leave me with much desire to witness it again, anytime soon.  I am all for a film that challenges the viewer, plays around with subtlety, and creates deeply complex characters, but this time around, I did not feel as though I was completely in tune with what I was seeing.  The film, not necessarily as a whole, but throughout many instances, is quite absorbing, but maybe it has to do with what I felt was a distance between myself and the characters overall.  For example, Seeing Freddie at some moments acting with a dedicated loyalty towards Dodd, only to turn that around in other instances may have worked for me better if I felt I was given more to attach to.  Having now sat through it again, my thoughts on this matter have not really changed.

Applying less analysis to it, there are a variety of great sequences in this film, with the best moments easily coming from scenes that feature Phoenix and Hoffman having it at it with each other.  Some scenes have them aggressively arguing, while others are incredibly intriguing, such as a sequence where Freddie undergoes ‘Processing’ through Dodd’s methods that involve revealing questions.  The beginning of the film in general, as we come to get a general understanding of Freddie’s character is also quite interesting.  Coming to understand The Cause via Hoffman’s monologues also provides some neat perspective.

I also love so many of the little touches in this film, many of which involve Anderson’s style of showing us how things work, by depicting various activities, like the process of Freddie making moonshine.  This is all further helped by the dedication to getting the look of the 1950s setting to appear just right.  The fact that the film is accompanied by another hauntingly appropriate score by Johnny Greenwood makes much of the film work all the better.

It often becomes tricky when evaluating a film like this, as I am certainly not trying to have the final word on it, just provide my own perspective and hope to find people reacting in some way, regardless of how much they may or may not have appreciated the film.  The Master is a lot of things, but it certainly functions as a film that is meant to provide a cerebral experience and be at least appreciated by those who really love film.  This does not necessarily apply to a mainstream audience, but at the same time, I am not saying that a mainstream audience would not take satisfaction away from seeing a carefully constructed drama, with wonderful performances, and great technical skill, which has been shot on 65mm film, on display.  I can say that I certainly appreciated these things, but I do wish that I felt more involved with the film as a whole, given that it has so many great qualities.  As it stands, The Master felt like it could have been tougher to process, but did not leave me seeking out more pamphlets from The Cause.


Here’s some food for thought, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was the first film I bought on Blu-ray and it looks fantastic.  Getting to see The Master on Blu-ray was something I was looking forward to for its technical specs alone.  As mentioned, The Master was shot on 65mm film, for the most part, and the beautiful cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. is well represented on the Blu-ray disc.  The film arrives on Blu-ray with a 1080p AVC-encoded transfer that does great justice to all the meticulous details that the film was intent on capturing.  The wide canvas presents a great opportunity for the viewer to absorb the stunning textures, colors, and various details that can be seen in the environments, the art design, the costumes, and other various forms of scenery.  The photography throughout this movie is pretty fantastic and this Blu-ray provides another great example of how great the format can be.


The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio surround track is pretty tremendous as well.  The score by Johnny Greenwood can be heard in full force, as the film goes on and provides ample opportunity for viewers to listen in.  Dialogue is always clear as well, as are the various ambient noises and loud sounds of waves crashing, motorcycles racing, and Phoenix raging, but this is really a track about its wonderful score and use of various songs in the film.  The mix is superb and nicely compliments the visuals seen throughout the film.  On the technical sides of things, everything worked out very well for The Master on Blu-ray.


It is a bit of a shame that PTA seems to no longer want to do expansive special editions of his films for home media like he used to.  Boogie Nights, for example, was a tremendous package (my first Dirk Diggler joke in a while!), for all of the extras it contained, which complimented that fantastic film.  With The Master, we have some notable extras for sure, but not a ton of material, which continues to keep the film’s ambiguity intact.  I may not have needed extra features to explicitly state what was going on in the film, but hearing more from the actors about their approach to the material or seeing more of a behind-the-scenes look would have been quite welcome.

Features Include:

Back Beyond – Outtakes, Additional Scenes, and Music by Johnny Greenwood – This is one of the best presentations of ‘deleted scenes’ that I have seen.  It is about 20 minutes of extra footage from the film that has been edited together in an effort to create a short film of sorts, which is a very interesting look at extracted bits of the film.  It was also a joy to see Hoffman and Phoenix lose it on set during a few takes.

Unguided Message – 8 Minute Short / Behind the Scenes – This is basically a brief “fly-on-the-wall” look at the making of the film.  I want more of this!

Teasers / Trailers – Usually not too notable, but PTA’s films have great trailers and this Blu-ray has all of them, representing different aspects of the film.

Let There Be Light (1946) – John Huston’s Landmark Documentary about WWII Veterans – This is the documentary that partially inspired the film.  It lasts about an hour and it is quite an interesting look at a bit of history regarding WWII veterans.  The fact that we see actual hypno-therapy taking place makes this definitely worth a watch.

DVD and Digital Copy of the Film


The Master is a challenging film, which is not at all a bad thing.  It doesn’t compromise its vision for the sake of being an all-inclusive audience pleaser, but at the same time, the film’s ambition created a distance for me, which overall left me not appreciating it as much as I would have liked.  I certainly admire a lot about it, given the great performances and filmmaking qualities of it, but I was still left fairly ambivalent to the feature overall.  With that said, the Blu-ray’s technical aspects are pretty fantastic and while the extras are on the small side, I really enjoyed what was there.  I certainly do recommend the film overall, especially because you’d at least get a beautiful viewing experience out of it.

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Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.


Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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