Review Date: 9-16-12
Release Date: 9-21-12
Runtime: 137 minutes
Period: Post-WWII – 1950
Costume Designer: Mark Bridges
Paul Thomas Anderson is known for boundary-pushing films: Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood… and he doesn’t just push, but rather he shoves The Master into uncharted territory. This is a film so raw, it bleeds. The performances will make your heart skip a beat. The plot reveals itself in bursts, like a puzzle of sorts. In the press, cast and crew have denied that this film is about Scientology. However, after viewing the film, it appears to be a poem composed in elegiac vignettes related to L. Ron Hubbard, the religion he founded, and the people who were central to his purpose.
The story unfolds around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an ex-Navy sailor presently adrift in the swirling wash of a world where he does not know his place. Mentally unbalanced, violent and alcoholic, Quell is incapable of keeping a job or maintaining any kind of relationship. Things change when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), founder of a new religion called “The Cause”.
Dodd offers him a job, a purpose, and more importantly, personal attention and caring that had never been a part of his life. Using his religion-based “processing”, Dodd tries to help Quell control his demons. The “processing” involves an almost hypnotic state, where past grievances, life experiences and lessons can be revealed and acknowledged. Quell becomes a part of Dodd’s entourage, but the demons do not abate.
Trouble ensues when Dodd and his crew arrive in New York for a party/processing session at the home of a wealthy patron. A naysayer at the party challenges the believability of Dodd’s doctrine. After a few drinks, Quell shuts the guy up, and eventually both Dodd and Quell wind up in jail. Dodd’s pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams) tires of Quell’s rash antics and his negative influence on her husband, but Dodd seems bound and determined to “save” Quell, making him a pet project of sorts.
Dodd engages Quell in rigorous processing sessions – mind-numbing psychological drills – to the point where Quell seems to break down. But for all of that work, Quell simply cannot get out from under the compulsive behaviors and mental anguish that cripple him. Eventually Quell breaks free and leaves “The Cause”, but he returns when Dodd summons him to England in a last-ditch effort to help him.
The film has so many layers – in terms of just the visuals, the music, the psychological and religious thematic elements, the only-alluded-to bits of back-story – it would almost behoove you to see it twice. The performances are mesmerizing, and I would not be at all surprised to see these fine actors nominated for some hardware for their wonderful work on this film.
I have so many questions about how this film was shot, what the discussions were with the actors, and how it all came together in the editing room. It seems to me like much of this film was (if not actually improvised) enhanced through a kind of method-style approach to the script. It feels like the performances were fluid, as if what we saw only ever happened once. The emotions feel so fresh, like they were just organically captured as they happened. It was almost scary at times, the furious intensity with which these scenes were played out. And I couldn’t help but notice that much of this intensity (violence, fighting, scuffling, even motorbike racing) was done by the actors themselves. No CGI tricks here; the actors were in the fray, themselves – in harm’s way. Yikes!
The costumes are beautifully executed in this film. The palette is a beautiful vintage array of smoky neutrals, navy, browns, greys, and muddy pastels. Only very occasionally do we see a pop of red. The tight color palette gives the film the sense of nostalgia – the colors are easy and murky, blending in and out of the background like a fading memory. It’s gorgeous to watch.
Quell is first seen in his U.S. Navy uniform (in its various incarnations) and he progresses through the film into casual dress clothes, mostly well-worn, used, faded and slightly oversized. It appears as though he bought his clothes when he was in sturdier form. As his muscles wither with his illness, his clothes speak to his shrinking frame, drooping off him like melting wax.
What was really interesting to me was actor Joaquin Phoenix’ choice to affect terrible posture as part of this character. As Quell slides into further mental decay, his shoulders slope further and further forward, contorting his chest into a hollow vessel. His shirts seem to accentuate this sagging curvature, narrow shoulder seams marking curves that would have once been solid, strong supports.
Quell has so much action and scuffling; his costumes really go through the wringer. In several scenes, his pants split right down the inseam, onscreen and off. It made me shudder with a hiss of “Oh SH!T!” under my breath, as if I was watching the monitor on set. It is this kind of realism that The Master brings to the table. Keep the cameras rolling; let’s see what happens next, even if it is unscripted.
Dodd’s costumes are a nod to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard – right down to the ascots, but not as far as the yacht captain’s hat. Costumes are one area where the influence of the real-life religious leader can be seen in the fictitious film. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s physique is similar to Hubbard’s, but even with the moustache he wears in this film (meant to distance himself from LRH), the “look” is notably similar.
Peggy Dodd’s costumes are really quite remarkable. She is pregnant in most of the film (save the last scene), and the look and tone of her costumes is extraordinary. They are prim with a capital P. I can’t wait to talk with Mark Bridges about his influences for Peggy’s maternity wear. All of those Peter Pan collars, uptight necklines, fussy prints, wow.
Peggy’s personality, however, is in direct conflict with the sweet and demure cut of the costumes; she is as maniacal, controlling and scary as it gets. Her costumes significantly help to reinforce the period, and to remind us not only of a woman’s role back in that era, but of the beguiling disguise that costume can afford a pretty face. Looking at her in those sweet and innocent costumes, who could imagine her keeping Hubbard’s balls (and the church) in a vise like she does? It’s brilliant.
There are many, many scenes with background from all walks of life in this movie. There are U.S. Navy sailors, moneyed partiers on a yacht, wealthy New Yorkers, cops, fields full of seasonal laborers, a department store filled with shoppers, gatherings of church people, and so on. The film had a LOT of background to costume, and not much overlap within the groups. This becomes a big concern in terms of the budget and manpower – it’s a lot of ground to cover when (on a period film) you have to dress every single person who walks in front of the camera.
All of the background in the film looked wonderful, but a special mention must be made of the people posing in Capwell’s Department Store in the portrait montage sequence. It was 100% pure magic. The casting of the faces, the lighting, hair, makeup and of course costumes were picture perfect. It felt like looking into a time machine. Well done!
I can’t wait for you Frocktalkers to see the film. I have so many questions for Mark Bridges about his process in designing this film. Stay tuned for more information, and have a great week, everyone!!!