BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC For the first half-hour of Paul Thomas Anderson’s riveting new film The Master we watch the shell-shocked WW II vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as his life sinks lower and lower into the mire of his own pathology. From soldier, to department store photographer, and finally chased off of the cabbage fields where he slaves along anonymously, Freddie keeps pace with the steamroller of a century the best that he can. When he sneaks aboard a yacht piloted by the august Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) Freddie looks for all the world like a guy with nothing left to lose. Yet when this odd couple finally meet — Freddie, “an animal” in Dodd’s estimation, while Dodd is a self-described “ writer, doctor, nuclear physicist and theoretical philosopher” — the pair mutually observe something that they need in each other.
Where early press might have led you to believe you were going to see the saga of Scientology’s rise, this epic yet intimate tale boils that story down into Freddie and Dodd’s paternalistic relationship, a visually hypnotic journey from innocence to beyond. Once again working in the bold, picturesque style he was harnessing in 2007’s There Will Be Blood but in this much more focused and controlled work, Anderson is able to use the dubious institution of Scientology to reflect on the last century, and the way American notions of fatherhood and religion shaped an era of promise and betrayal.
The Master’s narrative unfolds with a palpable sense of mystery, placing us, often with little context, into small but telling moments in his characters’ lives. The film’s long, uninterrupted takes give us a dreamy look at 20th century America through the eyes of Freddie Quell, first seen on some Pacific beach at the end of World War II, forlornly nuzzling the bosom of an earth mother made of sand long after his drunk buddies have lost interest. We also spy him drinking the fuel of one of the ship’s torpedoes and unsurprisingly, spending some time in the mental ward of a Veteran’s hospital. There we peek in at Freddie’s psychological exams, where we find out his father was an alcoholic bum and that Rorschach blots all look like sex to Freddie. By the time we catch up with Freddie in civilian life he is in a beautiful suit taking department store portraits of perfect little families, but his hunched posture and pinched expression (perhaps a side-effect of the chemically-enhanced hooch he keeps in an ever-present flask) point to something deeply awry in his life. When this troubled soul meets the dignified Mr. Dodd they are out to sea and over sips of Freddie’s mind-poaching flask we see the symbiotic need between the two: Freddie needs Dodd’s fatherly interest and Dodd sees the crab-like Freddie as the primal blank slate on which to project his philosophy. The steadily-drinking Freddie is recruited into the small coterie of believers that call Dodd’s philosophy “The Cause” and welcomed into Dodd’s slightly-incestuous family.
The Cause, Lancaster Dodd’s prescriptive philosophy, is of course a stand-in for Scientology, and The Master gets part of its thrills out of examining this upstart, most American of religions, whose affiliations in Hollywood have made the subject an on-screen for decades. Anderson is not much interested in the history of Scientology, but he gets the basic mythology of the religion right, the creation myth of Man’s ancient, outer space-born soul rendered impure from negative energy collected in past lives. Hoffman and Phoenix (intriguingly, he himself raised in a cult-like lifestyle) have some fun and showy scenes mimicking the interrogation-like interviews that Scientologists call “auditing” as Dodd digs around in the squirrelly mind of Freddie, trying to find his motivation. Unsurprisingly, the endlessly inventive Hoffman plays the role of Dodd like a Stradivarius, always finding the humanity in this grandiose man who mixes showy humility with an unwavering belief in his own bullshit. It’s hard to know how deep Freddie’s belief in The Cause runs, but he is hooked on Dodd’s authority. He’s a good soldier and a good son until the things he sees behind the curtain slowly whittle away his misguided faith in The Cause.
For a film of such epic sweep, it also runs at a very intimate scale as well — it’s easy to imagine The Master‘s story converted to a small night of theater. But the scale that Anderson gives the film (helped immeasurably by the Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr, who worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s recent films) leads one to imagine the larger ramifications of the pair’s story. Set mostly in the 1950s, Freddie’s sex and drug-driven id could hold the roots to the 1960s sexual revolution and Dodd’s half-baked religion could stand in for the waning powers of religion to restrain modern man. But resonating most strongly from the story is the theme that haunts so many of Anderson’s films, that of fatherless men seeking out paternal substitutes for guidance. Freddie’s situation fits nicely into that theme, with a period of trust and obedience giving way to doubt, distrust and ultimately rebellion, i.e. the journey from boyhood to manhood. While this conflict seems headed for violence and destruction, Freddie comes out the other side still lost but perhaps a bit wiser thanks to Dodd’s loopy instruction. Dodd may be a charlatan and The Cause might be a fraud but for better or worse they both helped make Freddie the man that he is.