A Strange Review: The Master


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.
—Lancaster Dodd

(NOTA BENE: This review contains spoilers.)

Catharsis, in tragedy, has been defined as a kind of purgation, a purification, of pity and fear. In psychology, a dredging up of past trauma, painful emotions, to expose them to the light of “scientific” analysis.

In The Cause, the religio-philosophical movement invented by Lancaster Dodd, catharsis results from reliving not only past trauma but also past lives. Reincarnation — exploring what the spirit has done or been subjected to in past “vessels” (bodies) — is a core belief, and a “rebirthing” enables the patient/practitioner/believer to expose literally trillions of years of festering wounds to the light of the Master’s empathetic gaze.

It’s a crock of shite, of course. As Dodd’s own son says, “He’s making this stuff up as he goes along.” But as played by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s unclear whether the Master has come to believe his own blarney. Perhaps he needed a new religion both to build a nice little empire and to cope with his own repressed emotions. (More on that later.)

The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood), opens not with the leader but the makings of a potential follower. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a WWII vet, an alcoholic who makes his own nearly lethal mix of moonshine, and a sufferer of what used to be called shell shock. Making the transition to civilian life is proving quite difficult.

When we first meet him, on a beach in the Pacific, he and his comrades do a lot of wrestling and crafting of naked sand women. Being alone with a lot of men for a long time is its own kind of trauma, and Frank has a hard time negotiating relationships with women stateside. He’s too hungry. And too needy. And still in love with Doris, a girl he left back home, but cannot seem to connect with finally.

Frank’s erratic behavior, childish sense of humor, violent outbursts, and inability to relate socially, would leave one to believe he had problems going into the war. Today he might be diagnosed as suffering not only from post-tramatic stress syndrome but Asperger’s too.

After he almost kills a fellow farmworker (having been fired from his first job, as a department store picture taker) with his homemade hooch, he literally jumps onboard a yacht, which just happens to have been commandeered by Lancaster Dodd for the wedding of his daughter. The stowaway is brought to Dodd’s quarters, and the enigmatic relationship of Master-Disciple begins.

Quell soon learns that Dodd is a kind of teacher, healer, guru (Dodd described himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher”). His doting wife, daughter, and new son-in-law, and somewhat less-enthusiastic son, are all part of The Cause. Dodd works his way into the lives of a growing legion of devotees by casting his spell, putting them “under” with a series of probing questions and suggestions, and then bringing them back, supposedly a little bit closer to “perfect” — that is, free of the demons that are causing their endless cycles of self-destructive, or at least self-impeding, behavior. When questioned by a reporter who has insinuated himself into a party where Dodd is busy impressing potential patient/clients, the Master insists he is not trafficking in hypnosis, à la Freud, but it’s opposite. He is waking people up from their hypnotic state, á la Morpheus and the Red pill. (Note to self: When trying to convince someone of something ludicrous, always employ a homely metaphor. Don’t think there is proof of past lives? Well, tell the doubting Thomas that when one travels around the bend, one can look back and not see what’s “beyond the bend,” but that doesn’t mean one has not come from there. Brilliant.)

In one mesmerizing scene (pun intended), Dodd subjects Quell to an interrogatory session, forcing him to answers a series of questions about Quell’s family, his past, his own self-conception — without blinking. Phoenix’s eye literally tear as he strains to keep them open in one long, agonizing take in which he spits out painful response after painful response, including an admission of incest. This “cathartic” experience seems to bring Quell some kind of release, or at least temporary relief.

But Quell remains disturbed by the fact that, despite his sessions and devotion to Dodd (to the point of physically attacking critics of The Cause), he cannot quite get the monkey off his back, or reform his habits, or stop boozing. Dodd’s family begins to feel uneasy about Quell and his outbursts. But Dodd wants to keep him close, not wanting his protégée  to “fail him.”

When the Master finally releases the second part of his philosophical Bible, called “The Split Saber,” to something less than raves from people who would appear to be most invested in his work, a little more of the man behind the curtain is revealed. For example, one of his approved teachers (Laura Dern) is concerned that, while Part One of his book said that those undergoing a session were to be told to “remember” the past, now they are to be asked to “imagine” it. Dodd becomes enraged that his methodology is being questioned. So do as you’re commanded: Imagine you’ve been abused by a family member. In the sixteenth century. It’s easy if you try.

Quell finally rides off the Dodd reservation. That Dodd’s own son Val, as well as Dodd’s publisher, write off the Master’s work infuriates him, perhaps because he, too, doesn’t really believe in the past-life regressions and the trillions of years of forgotten history, or that he, Quell, is getting any better at coping with life. “You can’t take life straight, can you?” asks Dodd’s latest wife, Peggy (played with a two-dimensional and dull-witted conformity by the impeccable Amy Adams).

Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the man inspired by Scientology’s witch doctor, L. Ron Hubbard, is as good as the script he’s been given. Which isn’t as good as most of the reviews have made out. Hoffman’s Dodd cuts a compelling and hypnotic figure: both authoritative and apparently thoughtful. I say apparently because it’s never quite clear what’s real in his interactions with people and what’s his own Master “schtick.” And again, it’s unclear how much of his own BS he has come to believe. There seems to be something about his own life he is desperate to purge, and perhaps The Cause was self-therapy run amock. And that something may be a growing love for Freddie Quell. This is 1950, after all. And the love that dare not speak its name, well, sometimes retreated into fantasyland.

But is that it? Is the entire story, the entire explanation for the appeal of this cult, really all about sexual repression? Is this just a 65mm version of Mad Men? Quell certainly has a lot of sex on his mind. There are a lot of fantasies where naked women suddenly appear where before they were fully clothed. He certainly seems obsessed. And there are unanswered questions about the “aunt” he supposedly slept with and this seemingly-too-young hometown love of his, Doris.

And Dodd also has a strange, if nevertheless fecund, relationship with his wife (who warns Quell that the Master’s most vocal critics are his exes). Is there nothing else going on here? Is it just the damn Leave It to Beaver, sitcom Mom and Dad sleeping in twin beds prudery behind this need to expel, purge, and put oneself in the hands of a con man?

I have found Anderson to be a writer and director of great originality, capable of crafting stunning visuals and eliciting moving performances. His stories are populated by characters longing to belong, to be a part of a group, a makeshift family (even of porn stars), a new religion, a new business venture. His films explore the toll such longing takes on the individual soul when it goes unfulfilled, or perverted, when trust is destroyed. Which is to say that Anderson always has a lot on his mind, and is always filled with surprises, even if he never quite lives up to the promises he makes, leaving us not so much with ambiguity but emptiness, as if a gifted writer had finally written himself into a corner, with no way out but to cut to black. I was left with just that kind of empty feeling at the close of The Master. Not, “Wow, I’m going to be chewing over that one for a long time,” but the realization that there was less there than even 65 mm (an innovation in cinematography) could present to the eye.

As disappointed as I was, let me stop and hail the true landmark here: and that’s Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Previously I have written that, if asked what the greatest performance ever given by an American actor was, I would have said Robert DeNiro as the young Vito Corleone. There are several reasons for that, one of which is that I could think of no other actor who could have pulled off what DeNiro needed to pull off to make the character “work” in light of Brando’s Oscar-winning turn only two years before. I can now say that I think I have seen another actor who could have done it. Phoenix’s performance transcends the script, which, while drawing you slowly into the world of the Master, offers only the most tantalizingly vague and even jejune insights. Phoenix’s very body bespeaks someone irreparably broken. He stands with both hands bracing his lower back, like a middle-aged washerwoman, as if he needed to support himself lest he collapse under his own weight. His speech is always slightly slurred, owing to inebriation, low-level psychosis, or both. It’s as if Quell were the brother Dean Martin never talked about: sleepy-eyed, on the make, almost Buddy Lovish with his outbursts and tendency to violence, but stripped of all cool, all dignity.

The “anticlimax,” if you will, of The Master consists of a strange little scene between Quell and Dodd in which the Master recalls a “past encounter”  in which the two of them fought together during the Franco-Prussian war — making hot air balloons that dropped mail  and secret messages over Europe. Dodd then breaks out into a chorus of “Slow Boat to China” while gazing into his disciple’s eyes. (We know that Quell had signed up as a “boiler man” on a slow boat somewhere years before.). This is followed quickly by Quell’s apparently careless and carefree bedding of a woman he picks up in a bar. Whether that, too, proves to be anything but an anticlimax is also unclear. The lengths to which Quell had gone to find intimacy, companionship, may have rendered him permanently incapable of it.

I was immediately put in mind of the end of A Clockwork Orange, in which Alex the Droog, freed from the effects of the reparative therapy he had been forced to undergo to tame his violent tendencies, enjoys once again his libidinous self in an unbridled orgy, which is a metaphor for the messiness of a free will. In The Master, however, Quell’s newfound freedom from the reparative therapy of The Cause may be little more than another kind of illusion. The Master may have still have him within his grip.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.