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Film Review: The Master

The Master (2012; Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are consistently master-classes in composition, visual metaphors, shaded performances, and complex, interwoven themes that present as arthouse prestige pictures but are subtly daring in a whole host of explicit and implicit ways. The Master is no exception, except that it is an exceptional instance in Anderson’s work, less flashy and eventful than There Will Be Blood or Magnolia and more gradual and thoughtful in its pacing than Boogie Nights or Punchdrunk Love. It becomes a more remarkable film as it goes along, riding a trio of outstanding central performances from three of the finest American screen actors of the era.

The Master is not only an exceptional study of character and theme, a superb blend of image and meaning, however. It has an understated frisson of dangerous agitation swirling around its (only slightly) fictionalized historical subject: author, speaker, and Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. In a Citizen Kane species of conceit, the Hubbard-like “Master” in question is the fictional Lancaster Dodd, played with exquisite, bearish, charismatic inscrutability by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The Master and his “Cause” closely resemble Hubbard’s early proto-Scientology movement and practices. Indeed, the resemblance is often so close as to be distinctly unflattering, even sharply critical, of the beliefs, practices, and methods of “the Cause” and personalities of its core early figures, which the notoriously thin-skinned and litigious Church of Scientology, with their deep penetration into Hollywood’s elite (most famously with previous P.T. Anderson collaborator Tom Cruise), can’t have been too thrilled about.

But The Master isn’t only, or even primarily, about a shadow critique of Hubbard’s modern religion/pyramid scheme. It’s really about a man, and all men. This man is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a sort of masculine singularity who represents a mid-century male type embroiled in crisis. Demobbed from the Navy after World War II (the opening sequence depicting Quell’s naval experiences – homosocial, horny, alone in a crowd – recalls Daniel Plainview’s isolated toil in the establishing moments of There Will Be Blood, with a brilliantly oblique score by Jonny Greenwood), the aggressive, volatile, and essentially simple-minded Freddie struggles to settle into a productive and rewarding role in peacetime American society. He takes photographic portraits at a department store for a time, his clumsy libidinous urges channeled into a fling with a store model and the consumption of alcohol (these combine in a diminishing single shot of an attempted dinner date, Freddie passed out next to the frustrated and embarrassed woman). He flames out of this job in a confrontation with a plump bourgeois managerial type, the portrait of the kind of respectable masculine success that he cannot himself embody but only observe and capture fleetingly through his camera. He is chased from a fieldhand job after a batch of his home-mixed booze gets an immigrant working sick, slipping towards a drifter’s existence.

He figuratively washes up on the deck of one of Dodd’s Cause indoctrination cruises, which doubles as a seaborne wedding for Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) to Clark (Rami Malek). Dodd enjoys Freddie’s paint-thinner-based alcoholic concoctions and invites him to the wedding; Dodd does not seem to have a history of naval service as Hubbard did, but that may be read into the text as a further point of connection between the men. Above all, Dodd sees something in Freddie, something broken that he can redeem or draw out or perhaps cure, or more to the point something that he can exploit for the furtherance of the Cause. Freddie becomes inculcated into the activities of the Cause, despite the sharp doubts of Dodd’s steel-spined wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and Freddie’s own crippling lack of self-reflection and abiding interest in bedding the Cause’s many young female disciples: one of them dismissively taps her headphones when he asks her forthrightly for a fuck, more interested in Dodd’s garbled self-improvement mystical effluvium than the offer of sexual pleasure.

The charlatanism of Dodd’s movement and the beliefs underlying it are frequently challenged, most memorably by another solidly respectable and well-spoken male type at a Manhattan soirée. This doubter, and later disillusioned attendees at a Cause convention in Phoenix, meet with abusive outbursts from Dodd and even physical assault from Freddie, whose aggression serves a purpose to Dodd as long as he disavows any awareness of it (Scientology’s frequent recourse to abuse to maintain orders in its ranks and its public position is thus sketched out). The Cause uses Freddie, but it becomes increasingly clear, and not just to Peggy, that Freddie is not making use of the Cause. The core therapeutic practice of the Cause, known as processing and based on Scientology’s auditing, consists of an examiner asking a subject insistent and sometimes repetitive questions about their past (and past lives) to encourage the unburdening of secrets. Freddie opens up through this process after initially stonewalling Dodd, but there always seems to be a limit to the man’s capacity for self-examination and productive change.

There is a core of ambiguity to Anderson’s parodic Scientology in The Master, an almost excessively fair insistence on seeing the purported cult from all facets. It presents several firm criticisms as well as an even more damning ugliness revealed in the responses to those criticisms by Dodd and his disciples. But Anderson also suggests that the Cause, for all of its dubious basis, pop-Freudian and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, and manipulative leadership, is ultimately a force for good, or at least for stability and course correction, in the life of Freddie Quell. Hoffman and Adams are both excellent, but what makes Joaquin Phoenix’s performance the best of the triumvirate is how he carefully constructs a portrait of a simple man banging his head against the wall of a world whose complexities frustrate him and being dragged, with simmering reluctance, into a recognition and/or an acceptance that his brusque, awkward facade has been self-erected to obscure his own complexities, or at least to transmute his desires into intelligible form.

Phoenix gives Freddie a unique physical dimension: hunched forward with a jutting jaw, a loping gait, a palsied half-smirk of a smile, eyes squinting distrustfully at a world that he cannot quite fathom. He’s out of touch with every emotion inside or around him besides his most primal (primate?) needs and urges: drinking, fucking, violence. But this primal man does want something more, something that the Cause adjusts his trajectory towards but cannot provide in and of itself. The Master throws plenty of shade on New Age self-help therapies and faiths such as the Cause/Scientology, but it understands and empathetically depicts the appeal that such belief-systems may hold to those disconnected from whichever conception of happiness claims the greater share of their veiled psyche.

What is Freddie’s conception of happiness? In the opening sequence of Freddie’s Navy days, Anderson shows sailors sculpting an amply-bosomed female figure into the sand of a Pacific beach. For the gawping approval of the homosocial crowd, Freddie performs a pantomime of sexual desire and prowess, humping the crude sand-woman to the hoots and hollers of his crewmates. But later, alone with the sculpture, Freddie lays his weary head on her chest and rests peacefully in the sun, an expression of boyish yearning for a mother’s comfort and affection. The shot is repeated at the film’s conclusion, Anderson’s suggestion that the gruff and often unpleasant Freddie has met with a species of transfered Oedipal contentment at long last, though only after firm rejection by the Master and the Cause via a quivering rendition of “Slow Boat to China” by a pained Dodd.

The Master also returns frequently to images of transition, the tail-end of motion, especially wakes behind the boats that carry Freddie in the war, into the embrace of the Cause, to England to finalize his break with the Master. The Master and the Cause do not “save” Freddie, do not cure him of his silent agonies, his disease of identity and formation. But perhaps they help to provide him with the tools to cope with those anxieties, to leave them dwindling behind him like a foaming wake. Cult or not, that is no small gift for any man to receive.

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