THE MASTER – Le Movie Snob’s Take
Read more of Le Movie Snob’s reviews at her site HERE
Spoiler alert: I’m not going to spoil the movie, just the promotional campaign. The buzz leading up to this movie has been suggesting it is a thinly veiled exposé of the founding of Scientology. Not only does that sound like a fascinating movie, it’s an act of daring for a director to potentially provoke an organization that besides being entrenched among Hollywood’s elite, is known to exact punitive consequences on those who displease them.
The filmmakers and actors have given interviews denying any direct link to the organization, claiming it was only one of many influences, while journalists dutifully pointed out certain details of the film’s story that match the history of Scientology.
Before seeing the movie, I thought this suggestion/denial tactic was legal cover to deter Scientology’s litigious appetite that at the same time whetted that of the moviegoer. Now, my cynicism thinks it’s a disingenuous tease that might backfire. Since this movie is certain to attract conspiracy theorists, here is a an example of the PR talking points that highlight the ultimately inconsequential similarities.
This movie is not about Scientology. Its theme is much bigger. It’s about the conditions of life that allow movements like Scientology to thrive.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a character named Freddy Quell. We meet Freddy as the chapter of his life in the Navy is ending; we hear the announcement of the armistice that ended World War II. Freddy enters a military mental health program that intends to assist his transition back to civilian life. It quickly becomes clear that Freddy’s problems are much bigger than the military could hope to handle, and he is released into the world untrained and unprepared. He acts inappropriately in social situations which keeps him from sustaining any kind of lasting relationship, the absence of which is filled with strong drink.
Director Paul Thomas Anderson offers no back story to explain why Freddy’s so disturbed, but it’s clear his drinking is an attempt to soothe deep, deep wounds, the kind that are inflicted in infancy and childhood and take a lifetime to overcome. Freddy is a walking black hole, the perfect mark for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a.k.a. The Master, a man not unlike L. Ron Hubbard, who claims not only to understand and know how to treat Freddie, but offers him the best prize of all: the company of other people who will accept him and give him a place where he can belong.
Dodd has his own pathology: he needs lost souls like Freddie to hand over their autonomy to him. In numbers, these devotees validate the leader’s authority to the outside world while reinforcing each others’ allegiance. Consequently, they are rewarded with the leader’s attention and praise, attention that provides a the kind of high that is as addictive as any drug. That this reward is doled out unpredictably and intermittently deepens their soul’s pain, insuring that they never fully heal and reinforces the leader’s dominance over their will. Dodd, while having bonded with Freddy for his mixology skills, nevertheless lets his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) impose her will on Freddy to go teetotal. Freddy doesn’t have the coping skills to successfully give up drinking, and the Dodd’s aren’t teaching him any, despite believing they are treating him. Freddy’s efforts to stop are valiant as he is surely motivated by the stability and acceptance the Dodds have been providing. But these rewards are unpredictable; this stress only fuels his urge to drink and undermines any “progress” he’s making. The following blog post pithily describes the destructive aspect of intermittent reward: “ if you reward good behavior intermittently and punish bad behavior consistently, you will create an incredible level of compliance like you wouldn’t believe it. (sic)”
Scientology was one of many movements that were born in the halcyon period after World War II. Americans had saved the world, and many people needed a new quest to fill the void victory had left. Director Paul Thomas Anderson did a lot of research and indicates that there was no shortage of Lancaster Dodds ready to supply the answers that no one really knows. Americans picked up the Freudian thread they were forced to drop by the wars and resumed their quest for self-improvement. Seeing two countries successfully voyage into space certainly reinforced the belief of many that the answers really are out there.
Dodd develops a name for himself on the “seeking-circuit,” holding center stage at packed gatherings in Park Avenue duplexes and enjoying extended stays at the Philadelphia mansion of a wealthy East Coast devotee, Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern). Freddy is happy to be his performance monkey as The Master manipulates his emotions as entertainment for his guests. Freddy has a place to stay, food to eat, and has achieved acceptance.
The scene at the Park Avenue duplex is noteworthy. Freddie’s inappropriate behavior towards the upper crust hostess is an indication that he has received no real treatment. Dodd publicly hypnotizes a willing matron, something that today seems should occur in private, but was likely a precursor to the group acid trips that would take place only ten years later.
During this scene, Dodd is challenged by John More (Christopher Evan Welch) who challenges Dodd’s methods with weak scientific arguments. It plays out rather perfunctorily and is unconvincing. Ironically, More interrupts Dodd as he is performing a hypnosis technique that today is called phobia desensitization, an accepted and effective psychological treatment.
While the timing of the interruption diminishes the scientific counterargument, Dodd appears to earnestly believe in his teachings. Whether or not Hubbard believed his own theology, such earnestness did not exist with him. Many documents and recordings exist that reveal his opprobrious recruitment techniques, his obsessive quest to capture celebrities, and his admitting his goal in creating a religion was to become rich.
Dodd’s earnestness doesn’t make up for his lack of credentials and irresponsibility of Freddy’s “care.” Dodd is still a charlatan, and while he seems remotely haunted by this truth, only his son Kyle (Jesse Plemons) voices this opinion in a surprisingly frank moment, fearless of consequences. The truth does not set him free however, and years later, when Dodd has moved abroad to “continue his work” his adult son seems genuinely happy to be a part of the family business. The need to belong is a powerful force, and I think the rewards of positive attention from his father have polluted the soil that made that comment, extinguishing whatever life that seed of truth may have sprouted.
These psychological cults reached their pinnacle in the 1970s, the end of the Vietnam war meant the end of caring about “we” so the attention shifted to “me.” The most notorious of these organizations was “est” (now known as Landmark or The Forum); Dodd conducts an exercise that was a hallmark of est “training.” Freddie and Dodd’s son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek) sit facing each other, one must hurl a torrent of verbal abuse at the other who is not allowed to react. I don’t know if the director intended this nod or not, but it is an interesting detail.
There will always be people will holes in their souls. There will always be people who feed and profit from their pain. They usually go to California, where the sunshine and possibility of becoming a star can delay the onset of the inevitable existential pain.
Paul Thomas Anderson is a treat of a director for a movie snob: no easy answers, ambiguous endings, and performances by master actors at the top of their game, although I think Joaquin Phoenix put too much of his method on display. He could stand to learn from his co-star: if you’re a great actor, with a powerful instrument with which to work, you can use restraint in your performance without losing any wattage. There is no moral, no lessons learned, no storylines neatly tied, no indication of potential epilogues for the two leading characters. The story ends. As it should.
4 1/2 of 5 Stars