Some comments on “The Master”

“The Master”, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson

I’m fascinated by gurus, especially those with feet of clay. The template’s usually much the same with all these guys: a bit of genuine talent, a lot of charisma, and a need to be surrounded by a family of dedicated followers; for a guru is nothing without disciples. Said disciples are welcome to question their guru (giving him the chance to show his wisdom), but outright dissent inevitably leads to ostracism. As a result, the followers tend to comprise a small group of true believers and a great many damaged, flawed and weak human beings, searching for some kind of answer to their problems.

Enter Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), World War II veteran, traumatised alcoholic and sex-obsessive, with a missing father and a mother in a psychiatric hospital. His chaotic life acquires a temporary purpose when he joins the sea-borne commune of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the “Master” of the title. Both actors put in performances that may well prove to be career bests; there are some wonderful set pieces and the cinematography is beautiful throughout.

But the bite of the film lies in its parallels to the early days of Scientology, and, to all intents and purposes, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character might as well have been called “Ron”. The techniques and ideas of “the Cause” are borrowed wholesale from Dianetics; the Master even looks a little like L. Ron Hubbard, and displays the kind of capriciousness, grandiosity and irritability one reads of in accounts of the man himself.

I don’t know how the notoriously litigious Church of Scientology has responded to this, but if, indeed, “the Cause” is code for “Dianetics”, they are, in many ways, getting off lightly, compared to their treatment in Russell Miller’s Hubbard biography, Bare-Faced Messiah, or the popular and media images of the organisation. There is little sense of any sinister global conspiracy in Anderson’s film, and the ruthlessness seems to be largely assigned to others – notably, Dodd’s wife.

Indeed, he himself is more an affable quack than crazed cult leader. He takes on Freddie’s case as a challenge, seemingly convinced he has an obligation to help him. Yet after scene on scene of “processing” and enduring Dodd’s “therapy” it is clear (spoiler alert) that Freddie has not been helped, and is no better off than before.

This is fine, and those who claim the film has no point or message should take note. Unfortunately, it also means that neither Dodd nor Quell undergoes any major change as a result of their encounter. They’re much the same at the movie’s end as they are when we first see them, and that puts a huge dramatic hole in the story; life-like, perhaps, but irritating and unsatisfying. This may well be the idea – to throw the whole scenario over to the audience, and make us question what we’ve seen. But, like the mystery of what draws Dodd to Quell in the first place (other than his genius for mixing lethal-seeming cocktails), it leaves a strangely blank area on the movie’s map, not marked with “Here be dragons,” but only, “Here be… what?”

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