The Guardian’s Xan Brooks:
Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic tale of postwar America offers catnip for the senses and succour for the soul, riffing lightly off the life of Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard to conjure up a film that is both expansive and intimate, confident and self-questioning. The themes may be contentious, but the handling is perfect. If there were ever a movie to cause the lame to walk and the blind to see, The Master may just be it.
Joaquin Phoenix gives a startlingly intense, almost simian performance as Freddie Quell; his back hunched and shoulders sloping, looking for all the world as if he’s only just learned to walk on his hind legs. Quell is home from the war, wild and wonky and set to explode. He can’t hold down a job and his homemade moonshine – largely concocted from soap suds and paint thinner – tends to poison those who drink it. The future looks black for poor Freddie Quell. Then one night, strolling on the wharf, he spies a fairytale yacht, strung with light bulbs, the stars and stripes flapping. On deck stands the man who will prove his salvation.
The writer-director’s first film in five years is an unsettling character study of a disturbed and violent Navy veteran, a selective portrait of post-World War II America, a showcase for two superb performances and a cinephile’s sandbox. One thing it is not is a dissection or exposé of Scientology, even though nearly all the characters are involved in a controversial cult. Even the prerelease phase of the film’s life has been unusual, with The Weinstein Co. moving up the release date to Sept. 21, some surprise screenings having sprung up around the country prior to its official world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and even the cinemas it will play in having become the subject of much discussion due to the 70mm format in which much of the film was shot. Its commercial career looks to follow the usual course of the director’s work, with his intense fan base and mostly, if not unanimously, strong critical support making the film a must-see for serious audiences and wider acceptance dependent upon the extent of awards recognition. Even so, this will be a tougher sell to Joe Public than Anderson’s other work.
Visually, The Master is bracing, resplendent, almost hyper-sensitizing. Pictorial elements such as ocean seas, skin tones, clothing fabrics and early evening light are vibrantly magnified by the 70mm celluloid so skillfully used by Anderson and cinematographer Mihai Malaimareh Jr. (Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt for Francis Ford Coppola). By any standards, the film is a visual feast. (This marks the first time the director has worked with a director of photography other than Robert Elswit, who was busy on The Bourne Legacy.) As The Master is not an epic in the usual sense of grand locations and antiquity and does not employ a widescreen format, it’s a bit surprising that this, of all films, is the first American dramatic feature to have been shot in its virtual entirety in 70mm (specifically, Panavision System 65) since Ron Howard‘s Far and Away in 1992. Due to the great format’s essential disuse, The Weinstein Co. has been finding it difficult to secure properly equipped cinemas even in some major cities to present it to the director’s specifications.