There are some film directors whose work you simply have to see. This was always true of course; I’m old enough to remember the excitement whenever a new Bergman film came out, a new Antonioni, a new Robert Altman. That’s where we are today with Paul Thomas Anderson. My son saw The Master months ago, and said it was his favorite movie of the year, but it was in town for about ten minutes and I had to wait for Netflix to get it to me.
Publicity suggested that the film was Anderson’s take-down of Scientology. That’s how it was hyped, and I think that hype set up expectations that hurt the actual film’s reception. In fact, ‘scientology’ is never mentioned in the film, and the eponymous ‘Master,’ named Lancaster Dodd and played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though he does found a cult with Scientologist overtones, is different from L. Ron Hubbard in quite specific and significant ways. (For one thing, a major plot point involves the publication of Dodd’s ‘second book,’ while Hubbard was famously and prodigiously prolific). More to the point, The Master isn’t a put-down. It’s not an expose. What it is is something altogether more ambiguous and interesting.
Lancaster Dodd is not, in fact, the film’s protagonist. At the center of the film is the troubled figure of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Quell’s a former navy man, and really seriously disturbed. Sexually warped, incapable of any normal human interaction, barely surpressed violence simmering just below the surface, he’s volatile, dangerous. At one point Dodd tells him that he’s an animal capable of eating his own feces, and we nod–that’s exactly right. It’s an extraordinary performance by Phoenix, an all-in performance, completely compelling and powerful. It’s as though the incoherent and murderous teenager he played in To Die For twenty years ago was transported back to World War II, and enlisted in the navy. His face twisted in a sneer, deflecting every authority figure with an unconvincing quick laugh, his body tense like a crouching leopard, Freddie’s ready to pounce.
We see Freddie in the navy, drinking what appears to be rocket fuel, or anti-freeze. We see him working as a photographer at a department store, barely holding in whatever demons drive him as he takes nice family photos. He assaults a customer, and is fired, drifts around, takes a job as a migrant farm worker, quite possibly kills (poisons) a fellow worker. Desperate and broke, he stows away on a yacht. And meets Lancaster Dodd.
Dodd, well, he’s not exactly L. Ron Hubbard, but he’s close enough. Hoffman fills the screen with charisma and energy in the role. He’s got Orson Welles’ voice from Citizen Kane, and he’s got Kane’s presence too. And he’s not afraid to come across as somewhat clownish, singing and cavorting and performing for his adoring flock. He’s the Master, and he’s created this church around his own personality, called The Cause, to which they all seem completely devoted.
He has lots of followers, but three in particular seem particularly significant. Laura Dern plays Helen Sullivan, the True Believer. A wealthy woman completely devoted to Dodd and his ideas, she’s shaken to the core, late in the film, when she realizes that, in his second book, he’s made changes to the message. Jesse Plemons plays Dodd’s son, The Cynic, who hangs around for the money, but knows what a fraud his father really is. Finally, Amy Adams plays Peggy, Dodd’s second (or third or fourth, we’re not sure) wife, a steely-eyed, ferociously devoted dynamo who gives the nascent cause its balls and guts and discipline. It’s the quietest role in the film, and you can’t take your eyes off her, she’s so brilliant.
But the heart of the film is Dodd and Freddie, and their touchy, complicated relationship. And at the heart of that relationship is the therapy (the treatment, the session) that’s at the heart of Dodd’s church.
In their first scene together, Dodd asks Freddie a series of rapid-fire questions, digging deeper into Freddie’s deeply disturbed psyche. And for Freddie, it’s a game, initially. Earlier, we’d seen Freddie with a psychiatrist giving him a Rorschach test, and it’s creepy–every inkblot reminds Freddie of violent sexuality. The psychiatrist quits pretty quickly. Dodd does not. And when he says the session is over, Freddie is perturbed. For the first time in his life, he feels like he was getting somewhere.
And that session, and the other quasi-therapeutic measures to which Dodd subjects Freddie continue throughout the film. And I think that’s the point of the film: they work. They help him. He’s not cured, certainly, but he’s. . . . less troubled by the end of the film.
Nothing in the film suggests that Lancaster Dodd is anything but a con man, or that his ‘Cause’ is anything but a cult. He’s a bright and charismatic man who likes attention, and has gathered disciples around a set of beliefs too fantastic to take seriously. When Jesse Plemons, as Val, his son, tells Freddie, ‘you know he’s just making it up as he goes along,’ we’re neither shocked or surprised–Dodd is not that difficult to see through. If the point of the film is to compare Dodd to L. Ron Hubbard, and The Cause to Scientology, that point gets made two minutes after we first meet the guy. And it’s frankly not a very interesting point.
What’s more interesting is that it works. Specifically, the cause involves therapeutic sessions that actually have some efficacy, that actually seem to make people feel better. And it doesn’t just work for the Laura Derns of the film–reasonably well off people, basically well-adjusted people, maybe a little bored with their lives, looking for some excitement and perhaps some meaning. No, the sessions Dodd leads actually help Freddie Quell. They work for a guy that messed up.
And Scientology works too. I don’t know Tom Cruise, obviously, but suppose someone were to ask him why he’s a Scientologist. He’d say, I think, ‘because it works.’ And it does work. People undergo a session, and feel better afterwards. Scientologists are famous for rejecting modern psychiatry; well, we see Freddie with psychologists and they don’t do him any good. But what Dodd does helps. What Peggy does helps.
That’s frankly a more interesting question for a film to examine. Not ‘why do silly deluded people believe in something as obviously fraudulent as Scientology.’ I think that’s the question some people anticipated that the film would ask, and the fact that it’s also a question that doesn’t in any way interest P. T. Anderson may explain how a film this accomplished didn’t do very well. But this other question, the ‘how do we explain the fact that it works’ question, that’s interesting.
And the film sort of answers it too. Dodd helps Freddie, because what he provides is something Freddie’s never had–positive human interaction. Some compassion, some attention, some, I don’t know, maybe love? Dodd, as played by Hoffman, is ridiculous, weak, foolish, misguided perhaps. But he’s got some charisma and charm, and he really, genuinely tries to connect with Freddie. Small wonder Freddie responds. Some human connection, some compassion. Maybe that’s enough.
Up to a point–I don’t think the ambiguous ending of the film suggests that Freddie’s all cured at the end. In fact, he seems to have left the Cause, and is still pretty messed up. But for a time, perhaps, the Cause worked. And then maybe not anymore.
Anyway, it’s a smart and humane film, brilliantly acted and filmed. And if its conclusions are tentative, and its ending ambiguous, well that sounds about right too.