“The Master”: Effects of Being Under the Spell of “The Cause”

 “The Master is an important work of cinematic art, which means that it’s very solemn, it’s way too long, and it doesn’t include an uproarious blooper reel during the final credits.” Libby Gelman-Waxner, Entertainment Weekly, 10/5/12 issue

And those are just three of the reasons I’ve decided not to see this very-hyped new film about a “leader” preying on the neediness of a vulnerable and troubled man. Some others?

  • Friends hated it.
  • Too many critics have noted the need to see it more than once.
  • The annoying trailer. (See below.)
  • You can’t make me.

The Master stars Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), and it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. According to David Edelstein, NPR.org, here’s what it’s about:

Alcoholic, sex-addicted Freddie can’t adjust to a society that Anderson portrays as homogenized, repressed. Then he stumbles into something extraordinary — a burgeoning cult called ‘The Cause.’ The Cause is allegedly modeled on Scientology in the days before its leader, L. Ron Hubbard, rebranded it as a religion. Why allegedly? Anderson won’t officially admit the connection, perhaps because the church is so given to suing its critics. Whatever the model, the title character is named Lancaster Dodd and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a man with the soul of a child trying hard to present himself as a Brahmin-like patriarch and visionary. Freddie stows away on Dodd’s yacht after fleeing migrant workers who think he poisoned a man with his homemade booze — and he probably did, though it’s not clear. Rather than chucking Freddie overboard, The Master takes a fatherly interest. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films — Boogie NightsMagnolia, even There Will Be Blood — have surrogate families that can be wonderfully attractive to emotional orphans like Freddie. Here, disciples eagerly submit to what’s called ‘processing.’ Dodd asks questions and then repeats them over and over, at once bullying and hypnotic, until his subjects break and open up. Like a Freudian therapist, he targets past traumas — but these traumas supposedly go back to birth and before that, over the course of trillions of years…

Choosing not to see the movie isn’t the same, however, as not appreciating the subject matter or not having interest in the opinions of those who’ve been there, such as former Scientologist Lorraine Devon Wilke, who saw The Master with several other ex-members. In The Huffington Post she writes:

 Beyond its artistry — which is estimable — and its storytelling — which, while masterful, will likely be found by some to be long, baffling, even boring at times — well dissects the anatomy of such groups and how they succeed. Simply put, they tap into something being sought. Something longed for, wanted, desired; something not being addressed or provided elsewhere. For some it’s desire for a spiritual path they’ve not yet found. For others, it’s to be saved, physically, mentally, or spiritually. Many are looking for community and family, a sense of belonging. Often it’s about the philosophy, the greater good, saving the world. Some are just seduced by someone else, swept up in something they deem new and exciting, unaware of the nuances and underbelly that, later, they’ll find troubling. This was all well illustrated in the film; that sly identifying of those who will be vulnerable, receptive, and willing, followed by the slow, almost imperceptible capturing of hearts, minds, and thoughts. By the time the crazy stuff comes around, they’re true believers in deep enough to keep them there…or not. Sometimes they slip away barely noticed, leave with a dramatic bang, or ride off on a motorcycle into the sunset.

I’ll need to see this film again; I want to view it unencumbered from the gasp-factor of every recognized element that crossed the screen. I do wonder how it hits people without some experience with Scientology. Will they find it so perplexing as to be incomprehensible, too arcane to make any sense? The reviews are a mixed bag and likely there is some of that confusion. But it is truly worthy of viewing with a focused, open mind and a willingness to view something great in terms of its art and craft.

Seemingly, most critics give The Master high marks. Some, on the other hand, succinctly express mixed feelings, e.g., Lisa Kennedy, Denver Post: “The Master is as confounding as it is magnificent,” and Dana Stevens, Slate: “I left the theater not entirely sure what The Master was about. I can’t wait to get back and see it again.”

Others among my favorite reviewers find it less than impressive:

Ann HornadayWashington Post: “‘The Master’ turns out to be more of a self-defeating whimper than the big, important bang it could have been.”

Richard CorlissTime: “The Master expends all its considerable skill on a portrait of the wrong man — a creature not worth Dodd’s time, or ours.”

Rex ReedNew York Observer: “137 minutes of Joaquin Phoenix’s nose hairs is not my idea of appetizing.”

A recent post by Warren Adler further comments on where both Phoenix’s character and The Master may have gone wrong:

It works too hard to be profound and barely rises to the central point it is struggling to make; there are some people who, despite every attempt at brainwashing, are too screwed up with substance abuse, mental problems and childhood traumas to ever succumb to any possibility for submission, to any cause, no matter its methods, no matter its persuasive techniques, however harebrained and irrational…

If there is a lesson to be learned by this film, it is that habitual drunks would be far better off joining a twelve-step program than seeking cure and comfort from a charlatan trying to enrich himself by brainwashing the naïve and unsuspecting into a profit making enterprise that benefits no one except the people who run the outfit.

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