'The Master' lacks meaningful narrative
By Suzie Setzler and Krysti Peacock
Written, directed and co-produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master” is a drama film loosely inspired by pulp fiction author and founder of the Church of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. The story examines the journeys of a WWII vet and his encounters with a cult-like faction that uses psychological methods, known as “processing” to break down and brainwash those easily susceptible to such treatment. And if you are curious to see the film that we predict will garner Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman an Academy Award, then by all means subject yourself to this movie.
The film opens with the last days of WWII, somewhere out in the Pacific. We are introduced to Freddy Quell (Phoenix), a naval officer, and get brief moments of his oddity. At first, we can only presume his stature and quirks are results from the war, but it’s his relationship with his inner sexual desires that seem to manifest in animalistic behavior. Contrasted by other soldiers around him, we get the sense that Freddy has more than postwar stress ailing him, as we watch him pleasure himself in the open and atop a sand sculpture in the shape of a woman. In addition, we watch Freddy drain a bomb for its fuel and drink it like water, a clear sign that he is not only psychologically damaged but suffers from an extreme form of alcoholism.
The story then follows Freddy post-war through two failed employments, and more or less the same destructive and dangerous behavior that seems to progress with signs of aggression now as well. Down and out, he stumbles across a party on a vessel and stows away aboard it, drunkenly. It is here where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), who introduces himself as a “writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher.” Above all those, he explains to Quell, he is simply a man, giving emphasis and importance to the word. With an admiration for Quell’s toxic drink concoctions (sometimes made with paint thinner), the two begin to form a strange and unique relationship as Dodd begins to test his psychological methods on the mentally broken Quell. It is also during this time spent with Quell when Dodd finishes writing his second novel, the continual basis for his belief system, from which he has followers.
Forming somewhat of an entourage that consists not only of Dodd and his guinea pig, Quell, they are joined by other member’s of Dodd’s family, including Dodd’s newer wife (Amy Adams), children and extended family members. They travel the United States meeting up with devotees of Dodd’s “Cause” and take up residence at one of his believer’s home, where they continue to practice and shape Dodd’s ever evolving methods of backward association, an analysis of past lives.
Though the story delves into Dodd’s continuous manipulation with those easily influenced, you get the general idea that these are the beginnings of what appears to be a cult. However, the film really at its core is truly about Quell and his mental illness, and his susceptibility to these types of influences. There are flashbacks to Quell’s first love, a young girl no more than 16, and confessions of relations with his aunt, which make Quell not only strange, but confused and conflicted. Even through his many stages of mental illness, Quell can begin to see over the course of time that he is not as devoted to the “Cause” as he once thought he was.
Towards the end of the film, there is a pivotal scene in which Dodd takes Quell to a flat portion of the desert and asks him to pick a direction to drive his motorcycle. As an example, we see Dodd drive forward for some distance and then return. But, when it is Quell’s turn, we see that he chooses a point behind them, and drives off in that direction, ultimately, leaving Dodd, his daughter and her husband alone in the desert. Metaphorically, it is as if Quell is unable to move forward choosing to live in his past.
The film ends with Dodd’s foundation thriving in England and Quell meeting with Dodd one last time, attempting to find closure to their estranged friendship. It’s Dodd’s peculiar choice of words that give us a glimpse into his beliefs, as he explains to Quell that everyone needs a master. And if you are able to find a way to life without one, then by all means do so, but essentially, that life does not exist. Since there is never mention of any other religion, it’s clear who the master is in Dodd’s institution. The last scene is of Quell on a sandy beach, lying next to a sand sculpture of a woman, though it is unclear what Quell’s final fate is.
We must say, this film was brilliantly acted, and though Hoffman gave a moving performance as the cult leader, Phoenix seems to be able to tap into his own true life experiences that lend to his character’s psychologically flawed soul. However, our main complaint with the film is its direction. Quell is deeply damaged and disturbing on many levels. But there is no real progression of his life in the film. In addition, we really don’t know too much about Dodd’s founding beliefs or how he arrived at them. At two hours, the film feels terribly unexciting and has a lackluster that transcribes our experience into one word — overrated. If you are curious about Scientology, you won’t get too much of an understanding from this film, which is what he had hoped to do. And you have to remember, the film is loosely based on Hubbard’s life. Yet, Oscar-worthy it is, and when it’s time to reveal nominations, this film will certainly dominate.
Running time: 137 mins.