The Master

Years ago at a science fiction convention, an old fan told me that sometime in the 40’s, L. Ron Hubbard was in a bar and mused that there might be real money in starting a religion.  Then someone bet him that he couldn’t do it.  I don’t think I ever really believed that story; it sounds too much like a joke at worst and at best has the pat feel of an apocryphal tale.  It would just be too funny if it were true.  But Hubbard would have been attending SF conventions in the forties so it is plausible.  And fans who were old at the time I was young would have remembered him.  Hubbard was a successful pulp writer in the 30’s and 40’s, a contemporary of Asimov, Heinlein and L. Sprague DeCamp.  He was one of John W. Campbell’s many protégés, although not one of the more talented ones, having never advanced stylistically beyond the pulps.  The real reason he wrote Dianetics and started the church of Scientology is lost in the mists of time and the deliberate obfuscations of the Church.  That church is very litigious and I doubt that there will ever be a film version of Hubbard’s life that is not officially sanctioned by them and which includes all the mythology that they’ve built up around their founder.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is as close as we’re likely to get.  It is not about L. Ron Hubbard; it’s not even really about Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man who has started a movement called The Cause, based on the idea of…well that’s not really clear.  It involves getting in contact with past lives and controlling your animal instincts.  And it is calculated to appeal to rich people.  

The movie is really about Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix.  Freddie’s stint in the Navy during the war has left him shell-shocked and confused.  When he encounters Dodd and his wife, played by Amy Adams, he is drawn not to Dodd’s ideas but to the man himself.  Dodd takes an interest in the deeply flawed and barely articulate veteran, sees something in him that no one else, not even others in the movement can see.  And just by the human act of reaching out and wanting to help he lays to rest some of Freddie’s demons.

The strongest part of the film is the performances.  Dodd is a consummate BS artist, a high class con man with a way of speaking authoritatively about subjects of which he is totally ignorant, and when challenged he defends himself by twisting your argument and claiming that you are being close-minded and if that doesn’t work, he’ll simply shout you down.  Hoffman’s performance is a masterful combination of revelation and concealment.  At several points in the film the illogic of the Cause is brought to light and you can see Dodd mentally tap dancing, trying to maintain the illusion that he is all-knowing, but Anderson, who wrote the script, never really tells us if Dodd actually believes what he’s selling.  He could very well be as deluded as his followers.

His wife, Peggy, however, has her eyes open.  She doesn’t believe a word of it, but she knows a meal ticket when she sees one and has assumed the role of guard dog, keeping Dodd away from threats, both internal and external.  Amy Adams is fierce in the role.

Joaquin Phoenix gives a transformative performance as Freddie.  He loses weight and hunches his shoulders forward, giving the character an awkward bearing that puts people off, even before they discover how deeply troubled he is.  I’ll warn you right now that you won’t understand half his lines, because he talks out of the side of his mouth.  He seems to be motivated solely by the wish to get drunk and get laid but there are layers below those that Phoenix shows us in glimpses.  You never quite sympathize with him but you do understand him a little.  It is an outstanding performance in a career of great performances.

At over two hours, The Master meanders a little but I suspect that this is on purpose, a sort of reflection of the philosophical bankruptcy of Dodd’s Cause.  His entourage of followers goes from one event to another, pretending that whatever is happening, a conference in Phoenix or the publication of the long awaited Book two has earth shattering meaning.  When the significance of the event sinks without a trace, they move on to Dodd’s next scheme without mentioning the last.  This structure makes the film kind of hard to love.  Like many of Anderson’s films it is about great performances and big ideas.  The emotional impact is minimal and seeing it can feel like a chore.

But you have to admire Anderson’s bravery in making this film.  Scientology is fairly powerful in Hollywood, with a lot of powerful players involved in it.  A film like this could conceivably hurt Anderson’s career.

At the very least I doubt that he’ll ever make a film with Tom Cruise again. 


2 Responses to “The Master”

  1. 1 Wendy September 30, 2012 at 10:23 pm

    The movie is breathtaking and needs to be seen!

  2. 2 theotherebert April 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    I have a Twitter account @cebert2 but I rarely post. I’m a little too verbose for Twitter.

    Thanks for the interest though.

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