"If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world." These are words spoken by one character to another in a pivotal scene near the end of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and they represent a key idea in the film: Do we flourish more when we are completely free and self-directed, or when we are subject to a master (or a mastering narrative/philosophy/religion)?
The Master—sprawling, cryptic, masterfully made—raises this question in provocative fashion, under the guise of a film about the early days of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the Hubbard role—a character named Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a pseudo-scientific, self-help program called "The Cause." Dodd is known by his adherents as "Master," and indeed, "mastering" oneself is the primary doctrine that he teachers. Like Scientology, The Cause teaches that human spirits (in Scientology: Thetans) are trillions of years old, reborn repeatedly in various "vessel" bodies. Through a therapy-type practice they call "processing" (in Scientology: "auditing"), these beings are able to purge themselves of the traumas, baggage and animal behavior that keep them from progressing to their perfect state. The goal is complete self-mastery, where "psychological" issues and even health problems are cured through focused mental processing.
Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is meant to represent Hubbard in the earliest days of Scientology, during postwar America in the early 1950s. In the film he is a charismatic, wealthy, ascot-wearing family man with a supportive wife (Amy Adams) and children, with the exception of one skeptical son (Jesse Plemons) who believes his dad is "making all this up as he goes along." Dodd is a man of confidence and the life of the party, prone to raising glasses in toasts and saying things like, "We fought the day, and we won!"
The audience sees Dodd mostly through the eyes of the film's protagonist, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally unstable Navy veteran who stumbles across a "Cause" cruise ship and becomes something of a protégé (or project) to Dodd/Master. In stark contrast to the calm, collected, dignified Dodd (at least on the surface), Quell is a wild man—an animalistic, sex-crazed itinerant scoundrel. As played by Phoenix (very physically, sometimes cartoonishly), Quell feels like a prehistoric Neanderthal: low-hanging arms, shoulders hunched, with appetites only for sex and survival. As the film starts, he is a jobless drifter, having been fired or chased out of low-wage jobs due to fighting or other escapades. He's a vulnerable, impressionable man when he meets Dodd and gets sucked into The Cause, and the question at the heart of The Master is whether this self-help system really can help him take control of his life.
Echoes of Paul Thomas Anderson's previous films are clearly present in The Master—a film about an aimless nobody brought under the wing of a talented mentor (see Hard Eight), the thorny relationship between individualism/freedom and collectivism/family (see Boogie Nights and Magnolia), and the unlikely pairing of American men whose tenuous relationship is characterized by opportunity, admiration, and fear (see There Will Be Blood).
The style of the film also bears Anderson's mark: long tracking shots, dissonant orchestral music (here, by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood), highly structured shot composition, and frequent usage of repetition. Throughout the film we see "doubles" of various shots/scenes that are repeated in a new way later in the film: Quell's early psychiatric evaluation matched later by his "processing" scene with Dodd; a rowdy naval ship at the outset, matched later by a prim and proper "Cause" cruise ship; Quell running away from danger in a field in one early scene; driving away on a motorcycle in the desert later in the film. As in his previous films, Anderson uses these doubles strategically to bring attention to the changes and contrast within the protagonist's arc. A double referent in the film's final scene a bookend to one of the film's first scenes on a beach—plays an especially crucial role in making sense of the film as a whole.
Another "double" in The Master is the pair of men at the heart of it—opposites in many ways but also bound by things (short tempers, fondness for potent alcohol, maleness). In one memorable scene in a jail, we see a great juxtaposition as Quell rages in his cell, banging his head on the walls like a caged animal, while Dodd stands with dignity in the adjacent cell, maintaining the façade of complete mastery over his "animal" temptations. But soon even Dodd loses his cool and the two men resort to an expletive-laden shouting match. It's just one of several ruptures in Dodd's supposed "self-mastery," suggesting that even the leader of The Cause has a hard time purging himself completely of those pesky sinful urges.
The film's strength certainly resides in the nuanced, powerful performances of Phoenix and Hoffman. They capture well the unsteady bond between Quell and Dodd, and we understand clearly why they are drawn to one another. Quell sees a man that can help him take control of his life; Dodd sees the ultimate challenge: if he can domesticate this unruly animal of a man, his program should work for anyone.
The problem with The Cause, however, is exactly what makes it appealing. The prospect of the ultimate self-help—that one is basically a god and has the power to eradicate the troublesome part's of one's nature—was attractive to the American mind in the wake of the startling horrors of World War II. The Cause, like Scientology, also holds special appeal in the American and masculine consciousness because it feeds on our innate pride and self-made manifest destiny. It's why celebrities, who often already have god-complexes, are likely attracted to the religion. But the problem is that man will never find answers to his struggles within himself, no matter how appealing and American the idea might be.
But as much as the film is about the misguided notions of this specific worldview (The Cause/Scientology), the film seems more interested in the broader questions of man's nature and the function of religion in general. As in There Will Be Blood, Anderson portrays a definite tension here between human nature and religion, which he suggests is a fraud that merely masks—or, at worst, plays to the baser parts of—man's primordial instincts. Dodd certainly comes across as a bit of a phony, using his religion as a capitalistic enterprise more than a system that gives his life purpose. In the end, he isn't so different from the brute animalism of Quell, in spite (or probably because) of the fact that he tries so hard to subdue it on his own terms.
One can understand Anderson's cynicism toward self-help religions of this sort, promising the conquering of man's millennia-old struggles with some simple therapeutic prescription. Even Christianity, which in theory is about finding help in a transcendent God and giving up any notion that the self can ever help itself, has in various manifestations drifted into the phoniness and false hopes of the self-help, "your best life now!" paradigm. When offered against the stark reality of human evil and chronic waywardness—things we are confronted with daily in the news and in our own lives—it's no wonder such iterations of religious belief are looked upon with derision.
With The Master, Anderson offers his most thematically complex and narratively obscure film yet. It's not all a success—the pacing of the film's second half sometimes drags—but the questions he raises on levels both specific (Scientology) and broadly existential (can man be his own master or must he serve another?) are important and provocative. It's a difficult film, to be sure, but a technically masterful endeavor full of details and density that suggest it will age well.
- What is it that initially attracts Freddie Quell to The Cause?
- Is the Master sincere in his beliefs about the dogmas he preaches? What does his final conversation with Quell reveal about his worldview?
- How is the answer provided by Christianity different than those offered by The Cause/Scientology?
For parents to consider
The Master is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language. It is not suitable for children and should be approached with caution by adults. There are a few scenes of extended female nudity, including a dream sequences/hallucination in which every woman in a party is seen dancing around completely nude. There are also a few brief scenes of male masturbation (no nudity shown). The film also includes plenty of expletives including lots of f-words.
Photos © Paul Thomas Anderson
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