This column is dedicated to bringing a critical eye to new trailers by examining their creative aspects — regardless of whether or not they provide accurate samplings of the features they’re designed to tease.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most visionary American filmmakers of the last two decades partly because his movies, despite a slew of peculiar moments, play off distinctly familiar reference points by deconstructing various facets of American society. From the ’70s porn industry of “Boogie Nights” to the 19th century oil industry of “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson’s cinematic enigmas magnify specific behaviors and attitudes to the point where they become entirely alien and thus open to fresh analysis. That makes the director uniquely positioned to tackle the history of Scientology, as his upcoming feature “The Master” aims to do. Months ahead of its release, however, the latest trailer already achieves this aim.
Set to open this fall, “The Master” takes place during the early days of Scientology — or, rather, a newly founded religion that bears obvious resemblance to Scientology — and revolves around disillusioned WWII vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he’s drawn into the burgeoning cult by author-turned-guru Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a blatant fictionalization of L. Ron Hubbard. While earlier teaser trailers provided only glimmers of the uneasy atmosphere and a mounting tension between Freddie and Lancaster, this longer peek (which is credited to the Weinstein Company Marketing Department) reveals a fully realized encapsulation of its themes.
As with all of Anderson’s work, images tell the story as much as cryptic dialogue and an eccentric score. Working for the first time with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (whose lavish throwback to Technicolor imagery were the best part of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Youth Without Youth,” set in the same period as “The Master”), Anderson has evidently crafted a lyrical study of societal confusion. Here are five images that best speak to the trailer’s editorial slant. Take a look and watch the trailer below.
On a Boat, Lost in Time
In a startling display of ostentatious mise-en-scene, Freddie initially appears sprawled on his back, his face obscured from view. The boat’s triangular edges surround him to claustrophobic effect as the nondescript men on the lower deck scramble about, symbolizing his disconnect from other people. While we don’t know if this shot takes place during Freddie’s time in the military or after he’s drawn into the cult’s exploits in international waters, the image gorgeously displays Freddie’s sense of being adrift in life — both physically and otherwise.
A Healthy World…Or Is It?
The early seconds of the trailer display a rash of post-WWII iconography, drawing out America’s self-satisfied public face in the wake of its robust global power. This phenomenal long shot of brown-hatted farmers, their garb striking a lovely contrast to the green of the field, has the magical allure of a faded postcard brought to life. But the deep shadows spread equally throughout the frame hint at darker forces lurking just beneath the surface.
“…a doctor, a physicist, a theoretical philosopher…”
Lancaster introduces himself to Freddie in vague terms that echo throughout the trailer in much the same way they appear to fog up Freddie’s mind. Lancaster presents his conceptual approach to human behavior with such confidence that Freddie (and many others) can only see him as a wise leader. This image reveals the element of theatricality that Lancester uses to reinforce his ideological authority.
“I wonder how he got here, and what he’s after…”
Obviously, the ruse works wonders. Lancaster presents himself as a man of the people — his people, of course — as he’s seen here dashing through the aisles and stooping to their level as if hugging the entire crowd at once. The makeshift roof in the background provides a firm reminder of the veil Lancaster uses to keep his minions from seeing the bigger picture.
“Is your behavior erratic?”
Balancing off the earlier image of Freddie on the boat, the sailer appears here with his arms outstretched over the waves, in apparent peril. The shot arrives after a series of tense encounters between Freddie and Lancaster show the cultist’s routinely coolheaded attempts to inject his rambling therapeutic approach into Freddie’s consciousness. The younger man’s evident vulnerability, hauntingly displayed here, testifies to the gullibility of a fragile mind.
Watch the trailer for “The Master” below: