Review of The Master, Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
By KENDRICK KUO
Paul Thomas Anderson (affectionately called PTA) captured my imagination in high school, when a friend introduced me to Magnolia. Following that, I was shocked and challenged by Boogie Nights and more recently deeply appreciated There Will Be Blood. Even his critics admit that he is a master of his craft and admire his ingenuity and audacity to keep pushing the line in Hollywood. This brazen disregard for conventions, in my opinion, demonstrates a faith in the audience to track with him. It’s a high estimation of the public’s appetite and ability to stomach those crazy foods. If you’ve seen his films, you know what I mean.
My one word for The Master: engrossing.
The Master follows the life of Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s a Naval veteran and struggles with alcoholism and what seems to be PTSD. Freddie is violent, spontaneous, and almost animalistic. He encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and becomes enlisted in The Cause, which is a cult surrounding Dodd and his eponymous book. Dodd teaches a pop-psychological pseudoscience about reincarnation and tapping into past lives, traveling between the homes of rich patrons that seek to gather more believers.
I would recommend the film with the qualification that the film has strong sexual overtones and can be shockingly crude at times.
The Film as Art
Let’s have the easier conversation first about the aesthetics of the cinematography. One couldn’t ask for more. The saturation of colors is fresh and innovative. The very opening scene is stunning, and it’s nothing but artistry from then on out. The dialog is pregnant with underlying meaning and innuendo, the characters have great depth, and the acting draws the audience into its mysterious world. One scene alone, where Freddie is broken and puts his trust in Dodd, might very well win Phoenix a nod at the Oscars.
But what about the story? The story is unraveled in an almost jolting way. There is no clear climax or cathartic moment, and at the end of the film, I was left wondering—What did I just see? In all honesty, I left the theater in a daze. And analysis of the film can be endless, so I would like to gather my thoughts under two headings.
[Warning: Spoilers Below]
Cult of Personality
Dodd’s cult of personality is directly attacked at three points. First, at the house of the first patron we meet, there is a naysayer who questions Dodd about the science behind his methods and assertions about soul migration. Dodd boils over during this cross-examination and ends by cursing him out. The second attack occurs from Dodd’s own son, who tells Freddie that his father makes it up along as he goes. The third attack comes from Freddie, when he condemns Dodd as a charlatan.
This is the underlying tension throughout the film. But whether Dodd is speaking the truth is not a question for the audience. I’m assuming that PTA is targeting an audience that doesn’t believe a single word Dodd is saying. The admission from PTA that some elements of the film are drawn from L. Ron Hubbard’s life (the founder of Scientology) could only reinforce this audience bias. For me, the question was whether Dodd himself believed what he wrote and said.
The answer, I believe, is no. After the publication of Dodd’s second book, The Split Saber, one of his patrons points out that it differs from the first book when it comes to the standard battery of questions used during “processing” (similar to Scientology’s auditing). Another patron outright says that the second book is worthless.
This has parallels to contemporary false teachers. Televangelists immediately come to mind, along with the positive thinking advocates. Discrepancies in their thinking are glossed over. And sadly, even when exposed for what they are, they continue to deceive thousands and maintain a loyal base of disciples. In the same way, every time Dodd appears to be exposed, he gets back up and the next thing we know, he has an even larger audience.
The Way described in Acts is different than The Cause. The true Master is no liar.
Conquer the Self
Freddie has a problem—or rather, many. He has psychological trauma from WWII, a drinking addiction, and we learn that he was molested by his aunt. Dodd takes it upon himself to heal Freddie of these ills and recreate a whole man. This requires going through bizarre exercises, some of which made no sense to me.
Unfortunately, Freddie never breaks free of his bondage. Dodd’s techniques only serve to frustrate Freddie and stir him up into a frenzy. Sometimes it seems to work and he appears to improve, but the movie concludes with Freddie appearing to return to his animalistic ways.
The Way’s Spirit-enabled sanctification is different than The Cause’s self-help improvement course. The true Master gives grace.
Beware of False Religion
PTA’s film is ultimately a study about cults, their charismatic leaders, and the Master-disciple relationship. Each of these things has been abused in religious institutions and that’s why so many people now think organized religion is a bad word. The Master lends fodder for such skepticism.
But what if there is a truth about reality that people must be told? And that this is only revealed through one true Master? This true Master is no self-aggrandizing leader; in fact, he gave his life. And this Master-disciple relationship is not that of an ego dominating another, but one of unfathomable love.