The Master (2012)

The Master (2012) movie poster

director Paul Thomas Anderson
viewed: 10/06/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Before There Will Be Blood (2007), I’d been pretty ambivalent about Paul Thomas Anderson.  From his first feature, Hard Eight (1996) (which I feel inclined to check out) to Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999),  Punch Drunk Love (2002) through to There Will Be Blood, he’s been a director to watch in Hollywood.  There Will Be Blood stayed with me, enough that even four years later, it’s still ringing in my ears.  So the thought of him taking on Scientology in some capacity suggested something intriguing.

Much has been debated before The Master was released.  The titular “Master” is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a self-proclaimed writer/astrophysicist/philosopher who founds his own system of belief which he calls “The Cause”.  He’s modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, and where there is Scientology or critique of Scientology, there is often media fire.  But the film isn’t so much a critique of Scientology, even if the film suggests that Hoffman’s character is making it up as he’s going along.  The fact is, it’s not Scientology, and Scientology is not Anderson’s interest.

Anderson is interested in the post-WWII America, a place of moral ambiguity, lost souls, opportunistic beliefs systems, pop psychology, and dissociation.  The Master follows Freddie Quell, the character played by Joaquin Phoenix, an inveterate drunk, a broken slob, the ultimate “project” for The Cause in the eyes of Dodd.

But really, The Master is a love story.  A love story between Dodd and Quell.  The love is a Platonic one, but more man to man than father to lost son.  Dodd’s wife, played by Amy Adams, realizes this and sets boundaries for Dodd throughout, recognizing the potential destructive nature of Quell’s doomed, dooming influence.  It’s not simply that he makes booze from turpentine and gets him drunk.  He’s tapped out, truly a lost cause.

It’s interesting because while The Cause, playing along the lines of Scientology, uses therapeutic methods, mixed with whacked science, isn’t really that far fetched from other forms of psychological therapy.  Perhaps it lacks the rigor of science, but it’s arguably as effective as psychoanalysis proved to be in A Dangerous Method (2011).  The post-war reality of psychosis only first became well-documented after WWI.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, today’s nomenclature for such trauma, which is arguably still not well understood today, was far from having any support or understanding.  And as kooky as some of the therapies or pseudosciences were, some form of talking therapy was probably of some true efficacy then.

Anderson seems to think so.  Quell’s ills are quelled by Dodd’s friendship and talks.  He does improve.  But he’s got a lot of issues and an insane alcoholism.

Anderson is interested in this period, arguably perhaps not just historically but as a parallel for the America of today.  With many war-torn veterans and somewhat adrift, is it an apt metaphor for now?

The Master was interesting, moving, thought-provoking.  It struck me nowhere as profoundly as Anderson’s prior film.  It might be part of a bigger picture as Anderson continues to make films.  It features great performances by Hoffman and Phoenix.  I’m sure they’ll be talking about it come awards season.

I don’t know.  I’m still sitting with it, I think.

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