When we think of cult leaders we think of, say, Charles Manson. But masters come in many guises. Marx was one, in his way, to cite a name a little closer to home for me. Cults, too, come in many forms. A gang is perhaps a form of cult. A political organization could be one. They attract a certain type of lost soul; they supply a family. (Manson called his group a "family.")
The cult portrayed in Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, "The Master," is of a more benign order, maybe. The violence it does is mainly to the psyche. Called "The Cause," it has a self-help patina and, as you've probably heard, it's based rather closely on Scientology. But I think Scientology per se interests Anderson only as a jumping-off point to explore something universal and core: the age-old master/servant relationship, the human need for some sort of master.
More than any major filmmaker, Anderson delights in leaving you not knowing what to make of his work. "The Master" is a curious, frustrating, exhilarating picture. I can say I was never bored. In fact, it kept my stomach in a state of nearly constant knots. From scene to scene, what's at stake is nothing less than the soul of his characters.
It’s the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy man at the conclusion of World War II. He's an alcoholic and an obsessive poon hound. He's probably got PTSD. Drifting from job to job (department store portrait photographer, field hand), he favors a mind-blowing regimen of rocket-fuel and paint-thinner cocktails. As played by Phoenix, Freddie’s mug is a twisted rictus of pain. Glowering, sneering, grimacing, cackling, he contorts his face and body like something out of a Bacon painting. He's an animal.
And he's got a broken heart. We see flashbacks to the days when he courted a far younger woman (Madison Beaty), for whom he might have been a master.
One night Freddie impulsively hops aboard an outbound ship, just because it looks festive. The ship is commandeered by one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-styled renaissance man (scientist, author, engineer, philosopher). The passengers are followers of the Cause, the movement led by Dodd. Its teachings are made up of the most remarkable inanities about tapping into past lives going back "trillions" of years.
Warm but firm, Dodd embraces Freddie. Almost immediately they form a deep, contentious bond (over Freddie's satanic brews, for one). Freddie would seem to be a perfect recruit. He’s reached a point in his life where he needs a master--or maybe it's better to say a teacher--as we all do at some point. However, he remains in many ways untamable: a wild animal. Will he remain his own man?
The Cause's "processing" is powerful therapy. Dodd asks basic questions again and again, until Freddie changes his answers, or just their inflection. "What is your name?" Softly:"Freddie Quell." "What is your name?" A little louder: "Freddie Quell." "Do your past failures bother you?" "No." "Do your past failures bother you?" "No." "Do your past failures bother you?" "Yes." He breaks down Freddie’s psyche. Processing is about confronting honestly the hardest truths about yourself.
Full of the convert's zeal, Freddie kicks anyone's ass who expresses an opinion that the Cause might be any less than revealed truth, or that the emperor has no clothes. Though Dodd calls Freddie "naughty" for these outbursts, he himself explodes when challenged publically.
The movie can trance you out. There's a long sequence, unspooling hypnotically (with Radiohead guitar player Johnny Greenwood's wall-to-wall score underneath), that intercuts an exercise where Dodd challenges Freddie not to react to insults from his son-in-law (Rami Malek), who can't stand Freddie because Dodd’s daughter, his wife, (Ambyr Childers) is hot for Freddie. Anderson intercuts this with scenes in which Dodd commands Freddie to walk across a room, again and again, from wall to window, laying his hands on them and describing what he feels, over and over from morning to night. “Again!” he calls from the dining room. When Dodd decides it's enough, he abruptly calls it off.
Amy Adams plays Lancaster's wide-eyed, slightly Stepford wife. Quiet in public, in private she's steely, the queen behind the throne, the fire beneath his ass. We get just quick glimpses of the psycho-sexual dynamics of their private life, but it seems pretty clear that she's dominant in that realm. She's torn about Freddie, wanting to help him while also believing he'll be the undoing of the Cause because "he doesn't want to get better."
Anderson, 42, deals in powder kegs, in men who are demented, full of rage. He writes such juicy leads. As an acting showcase, "The Master" is a lot of fun. Let two great actors go as Anderson does and the results are going to be fascinating. I was riveted just watching Hoffman and Phoenix react to what the other was doing in the moment.
There's a moment I can't forget. At a book release party, Laura Dern, playing a devoted follower, draws Dodd aside and innocently questions him about a point in the new text. Doesn’t it directly contradict one of his past teachings? she wonders. Dodd bursts out in a mirthless laugh, like a dam breaking. Just for a second he allows himself to guffaw at his own colossal edifice of bullshit. It's a chortle that says, "Yeah, well, I mean...it's ALL completely fucking arbitrary!!" There's hysteria in it, and desperation, and contempt. But it passes quickly, and then he barks at her, startling her.
The contradictions mount. This is a film of major performances that is too full of wild cards to be traditional Oscar bait. It's a big-budget picture (and just plain big--shot in 70mm, though I had to be content with seeing it in 35). Those things usually turn about as quickly and nimbly as a cruise ship. Yet here there's a sense of improvisatory play. When the big cameras were down, they brought in a page of Victorian porn and had Adams read it straight into a handheld, as though she were reading it to Freddie.
And so what we're left with is the performances and some bravura filmmaking, like a surreal scene where we see a room from Freddie’s point of view: Lancaster Dodd is jovially holding forth. He's the life of the party, drinking and singing a bawdy song. All of the women, including the seniors, are naked. There’s a fight in a department store where the camera dances and feints with the combatants in a balletic tracking shot.
It's utterly cinematic, while at the same time feeling like nothing so much as one of those opaque New Yorker short stories that you never quite forget, even it leaves you puzzling, "What was all that about?"
--October 10, 2012
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)