Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. U.S. 2012.

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Shot in old-fashioned 70MM, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master focuses on the unlikely bond between emotionally disturbed Navy veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a self-help movement known as “The Cause,” ostensibly modeled after Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. The film describes the theories that propel the program as well as the methods used by Dodd in repeated attempts to alter Quell’s destructive path. In Phoenix’ performance, Freddie looks like a troubled man with bloodshot eyes, hunched-over posture, facial ticks, and a slight speech impediment that never change throughout the film.


The Master opens on a South Pacific beach where Quell entertains his Navy buddies by pretending to have sex with a female sand sculpture he molded, and then entertains himself by wading into the water to masturbate. Having barely survived his stint in the Navy, Freddie undergoes psychological testing for Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but in his response to the Rorschach test, all he can see in the ink blots are depictions of sexual organs. After the war, Freddie goes back on his word and does not return to the 16-year-old girlfriend (Madisen Beaty) he left behind in Massachusetts. Instead, he finds work as a department store photographer and a field worker picking cabbage.


Drinking heavily, his experience at both jobs is less than magical. In the department store, he physically assaults a customer who complains about the excessive proximity of the lighting, and, as a field worker, poisons a fellow worker with a toxic brew of paint thinner, cleaning detergent, and whatever is available. Needless to say, it’s not fruit cocktail. On the run from the incident, Freddie stows away on a yacht going to New York City via the Panama Canal and meets Lancaster Dodd, the leader of The Cause. In spite of Freddie’s disturbed behavior aboard the yacht, Dodd befriends him and invites him to his the wedding of his daughter (Ambyr Childers) to Clark (Rami Malek).


It is soon clear that Dodd’s family members are also active participants in his movement, including his son Val (Jesse Plemons), and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) who serves as his manager. Dodd, who describes himself as a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher, uses the processes he has created to attempt to change Freddie’s anti-social behavior, but the effort to make Freddie socially acceptable is like a choirmaster giving singing lessons to a man without vocal chords. Whatever techniques are used (and there are many), nothing seems to work. In one sequence that shows Anderson’s skill at using close-ups to heighten emotional tension, Dodd questions Freddie repeatedly about the intimate details of his sex life until he gets the answer he likes.


Dodd’s behavior, however, is not a role model for any new recruit. Though he preaches the idea of curbing our animal nature by filtering out negative stimuli - anger, insecurity, and violence run amok in the group’s culture and anyone who attempts to question Dodd’s theories, methods, or character is dealt with summarily and it is not pretty. Dodd’s arrogant behavior is also demonstrated when he is confronted by critics of his work, and when a group member (Laura Dern) questions a word in his second book that suggests a change in the program’s direction. It is uncertain if Anderson intended a reference to Scientology or any other such program, but showing The Cause’s methods of bullying and intimidation to support their agenda, certainly invites comparison.


Though the film has moments of insight and power, it never really digs below the surface and, for all its posturing, processing, and theorizing, does not add up to a satisfying experience. Both Phoenix and Hoffman are outstanding in their roles and are a good bet to be remembered at Oscar time, but they can hardly make up for what ultimately is an unpleasant and deflating experience. The characters show no evidence of personal growth, and the subject of how to unlock a human being’s potential to achieve power over his demons is never really explored beyond shouting matches, cursing, violence, and gratuitous sex.


In addition, the film reinforces the tired stereotype that human potential movements invariably have an ego-driven psycho as its leader, surrounded by fawning dummies. In promoting this agenda, the film dismisses all inquiries into alternative methods of personal growth, past-life regression, and spiritual teaching as frivolous. Transformation and the expansion of our ability to achieve full self-expression is a liberating experience. Not only is Anderson’s film not liberating, there is no experience of the capacity of the human spirit to reach towards greatness. Though The Master is barely over two hours long, it feels like being on a slow boat to China. The trip does not require you to have strong survival skills, but it helps.



Howard Schumann

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