It's been a while since I left a movie theater scratching my head but The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest product, did it for me. This movie has received a lot of plaudits for the two central performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Master himself and Joaquin Phoenix as the alcohol-raddled victim of post-traumatic stress disorder who somehow blunders into the closed family world of Lancaster Dodd (the Master) and is taken on as an evidently pro bono project. The film also looks beautiful and I didn't find the two and a half hours dragging much if at all. But the question you're left with is a big one: what is The Master about? Is it indeed a thinly-veiled account of the early life of L. Ron Hubbard whose Scientology cult had and has much in common with "The Cause," as Dodd and his family refer to their movement? Or is it primarily a look inside the mind of Freddie Sutton and the futility of all the efforts, his own or those of others, to help him rejoin society? At the beginning of the story we see him in the Pacific theater of war, already sick from the deadly mix of various alcohols that he distills and imbibes, and part of a group of similar casualties who are being told by an officer that they will be helped to take up a useful role in society in some humble capacity or other. The next thing we know he boards a pleasure boat which just happens to be where the Master's daughter is about to be married and Dodd and Sutton strike up an acquaintance, though how it came about we never actually see. Some of the details of the story incline us to think that it is all a fantasy in Sutton's head, and surely some at least of it is. But then, why would a drunk's delirium produce a convincing version of an L. Ron Hubbard-type religious charlatan? Some at least of this part of the story seems like a superior kind of bio-pic. Then there is Dodd's wife played chillingly by Amy Adams. But why is she seven months pregnant for most of the movie and then in England at the end of the movie, no longer so? And why in the odd English castle that Dodd seems to have made his headquarters do the students appear to be a mix of schoolchildren and policemen?[Spoiler alert!]I don't mean to be carping about a movie that holds your attention by the sheer power of the two principal actors, though I suspect that there is either a little sloppy editing or, more likely, some unfair obfuscation. In the end, perhaps, the story itself is less interesting than the interactions between the characters. It draws a fine picture of a cult, with that enticing mixture of extreme religious baloney on the one hand and a warm and supportive camaraderie on the other, but this has been done before. It also suggests that some battlefield trauma may just be too difficult to overcome entirely, though Freddie seems to make some progress. How much or how little may be indicated in the final scene where, having sex with a compliant English woman he has picked up in a pub he interrupts their pleasure to put her through a little verbal therapy he recalls from the techniques of the Cause. He's going to cope, maybe, but he's never going to be normal. Dodd on the other hand, whom Hoffman plays as a kind of Hemingway character complete with shotgun and handgun and motorcycle and beard, copes only too well in his tightly-wound persona, at times ingratiating and at others full of rage. In the end he gives Freddie the choice of going or staying. Perhaps I'll stay in the next life says Freddie, and walks out a free man. Mostly.
About the Author
Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.