I would guess that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master would be just as intriguing, just as mysterious, and just as unnerving if there had never been a writer named L. Ron Hubbard or a religious organization called Scientology. The film most certainly draws inspiration from both subjects, going so far as to take place in the year 1950, which is only two years before Scientology was founded. Even then, never once does it feel like a veiled commentary or a lurid expose. It is, above all, a complex and engrossing character study – not of the title character, as one might expect, but rather of his disciple. This would be Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a wayward and emotionally broken World War II navy vet who has slowly been poisoning himself with alcoholic concoctions containing cleaning fluids, paint thinners, and industrial chemicals.
The physical and mental tolls taken on him are all too obvious, although I suspect it has more to do with his hazardous drinking habits than with witnessing the horrors of war. The right side of his mouth is nearly paralyzed, he’s always slightly hunched over when he walks, and his gait is somewhat on par with a man in his seventies or eighties. He has an almost juvenile preoccupation with sex; during the opening scene, he’s on a beach with his shipmates feigning intercourse with a sand sculpture of a woman, and later on, during a therapy session at a psychiatric hospital, he sees male and female genitalia in every Rorschach. He will occasionally act on his urges with real women, sometimes when it’s most inappropriate. He has anger management issues and an impulse control problem, as evidenced by the loss of his jobs as a mall photographer and as a cabbage farmer.
Quell is also plagued by unresolved emotional traumas – the death of his alcoholic father, his mentally unstable mother being committed to a mental institution, and his inappropriate courtship of a sixteen-year-old girl named Doris (Madisen Beaty), which was cut short when he joined the navy and she went to visit family in Norway. One night, he sneaks onto a ferryboat commanded by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher,” he explains to Quell, “but above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, like you.” Dodd, who is joined on the ferry by dozens of people and is referred to as Master, has already published a book on The Cause, a spiritual belief system founded on the notion that man is not an animal and that our successes and failures were imprinted on us trillions of years ago and are carried from one lifetime to the next. He’s now working on his next book.
Contrary to all the movie synopses I’ve read, Dodd is not all that charismatic. He is, in fact, rather low key and robotic, which may account for how he can make his confusing, long-winded nonsense sound credible. Nevertheless, his initial act of kindness towards Quell, coupled with a newly developed taste for one of Quell’s cocktails, ignites within the young ex-seaman a misplaced sense of protectiveness. He will, for example, physically assault the skeptics who openly scrutinize Dodd’s beliefs and methodologies. However, Quell also becomes the reluctant subject of Dodd’s brainwashing techniques, which involve bizarre psychiatric evaluations (repeatedly asking the same questions), mental exercises (touching a pane of glass and a wood paneling with his eyes closed and being asked to “describe” them), and lectures about finding the true path.
At Dodd’s side is his family, most notably his new wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who’s not only pregnant with her second child but is also militantly defensive of her husband, who can himself be astoundingly immature and hostile when cornered. Consider a scene where one of his followers (Laura Dern) tries to probe him about a word change in his latest book, one that dramatically changes the context of his entire philosophy. “This is where we are at,” Peggy says angrily: “To have to explain ourselves! The only way to defend ourselves is to attack!” Initially welcoming of Quell, she begins to wonder if he truly embraces what her husband preaches and if he may be beyond help. Joining Dodd is his grown son (Jesse Plemons), essentially a passive outsider. “He’s making this up as goes along,” he tells Quell in a private moment of candor.
Indeed, the more you listen to Dodd speak, the more apparent it becomes that he’s making absolutely no sense. He can string words together with expert precision, but he can’t provide context or factual evidence for his claims. How, then, can he have so much influence? I think there is inherent in most people (admittedly, myself included) a need to be validated and guided by those in positions of authority, especially when they’re physically and psychologically distressed. It would be inaccurate to say that Quell is brainwashed by Dodd, as he never really applies the teachings to his daily life. However, he certainly is far too willing to act on Dodd’s behalf. Characters like Quell, I believe, are in no way representative of disciples from any specific religion or cult, including Scientology. Keep this in mind when watching The Master.
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