Blu-ray Review: The Master

STUDIO: Anchor Bay/The Weinstein Company | DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson | CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 2/26/2013 | PRICE: DVD $29.98, Blu-ray/DVD Combo $39.99
BONUSES: outtakes, additional scenes, short film, vintage documentary, more
SPECS: R | 138 min. | Drama | 1.85:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 | English and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall


One of 2012’s most talked-about films and, I’ll admit early on, one of my favorites, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master arrives in an outstanding Blu-ray package, featuring an excellent transfer of the film and a fine assortment of bonus features.

Set in the early 1950s, The Master centers on the relationship between charismatic intellectual Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman (Moneyball), known as “The Master”—the creator of a stylized “belief system” that catches on with troubled, lost souls—and young, traumatized WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, I’m Still Here), who becomes his right-hand man. Known as “The Cause,” Dodd’s self-spiritualization movement, beneath its pleasant veneer, has a cult-like, business-minded bottom line, and casts a strong spell over Quell, leading to a complex, years-long relationship between the addled disciple and his “master.”

Opened-ended, occasionally difficult to follow and very open to interpretation, The Master was a darling for the critics, who loved debating its ambiguities and meanings. Though The Master contains a clear narrative thread, with its story taking audiences from the South Pacific to Northern California to New York and Philadelphia, then back to the West Coast again before concluding in England, the progression and chronology of the film can come off as either intriguing or frustrating, depending on the viewer. I felt that writer/director Anderson’s off-center building of the story angled my attention toward its three fascinating leading characters (the third is Dodd’s dedicated wife, played by The Fighter’s Amy Adams), prompting me to focus more on their personas and motivations than I would have if the story had been presented within the confines of a more traditional narrative template. I watched the film for a second time on Blu-ray and it only enriched my appreciation for the stars’ performances, their characters, and Anderson’s unconventional storytelling methods.

The Master movie scene

Joaquin Phoenix (l.) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman star in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.

Much of The Master was shot in a 65mm widescreen film format, a technical aspect that was much publicized upon its theatrical release last fall. The film looked stunning in theaters and its dazzling image has carried over to its Blu-ray incarnation, with the richness and detail of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr’s work on display in all its grandeur. The power of that image is largely due to Anderson’s structure and compositions, which largely consist of lengthy scenes where the camera moves slowly or remains stationary and viewers have time to take in all aspects of the mise en scene. And with scenes set in such visually powerful locations as a WWII battleship on the Pacific Ocean, Northern California deserts and lettuce patches, sprawling New York City apartments, and marble-pillared department stores, there’s a lot to look at (when we’re not taking in the landscape of faces provided by the performers).

As for the audio, the subtlety and sophistication of Jonny Greenwood’s sonic musical score is also right on target. Greenwood also composed the music for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and like score, the distinctive, swelling orchestrations add an impressionable mood to what’s happening on screen. Also outstanding is the use of period music, led by Ella Fitzgerald’s take on Irving Berlin’s “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” a perfect choice to underline the ever-swelling internal anxieties of Freddie Quell.

The Blu-ray bonus materials, like the film they enhance, are unique and interpretative. They’re led by “Back Beyond,” a 20-minute collection of outtakes and additional scenes set to music by Greenwood. The outtakes and deleted bits have essentially been edited together in the form of a short film, with dialogue from the soundtrack inserted in a not-necessarily chronological order or even out of synch. The result is an intriguing amalgam of sounds and images that give the viewer more information and insight to digest, but that doesn’t offer any solid answers to questions raised in the movie. Ditto for “Unguided Message,” an eight-minute chunk of behind-the-scenes footage that offers a glimpse at the making of the film. Like “Back Beyond,” there’s no narration or specifics about what we’re watching, but we can gather that it’s the production team and cast on location and sets,  putting together various scenes. And like the film, we’re to make of it what we wish.

Also included is John Huston’s 1946 documentary Let There Be Light, an hour-long look at the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that affected U.S. veterans returning home from their experiences in WWII, and the hypno-therapy that physicans used in its treatment. Anderson has stated that the doc helped him in crafting his film and it definitely gives insight into a kind of treatment that has gone through a lot of changes since its initial practice some sixty years ago.


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.