Review: The Master Elegantly Dissects Cult Psychosis

Wired/September 20, 2012

Beautiful to look at, strangely hypnotic and utterly original, The Master examines cult dynamics through the '50s-era misadventures of a violent ex-sailor with horrible posture and zero impulse control.

Filmmaking artistry aside, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's picture hits home as a period-perfect examination of a perpetually recurring truth: When people hanker for a know-it-all authority figure who will tell them what to think, self-appointed "masters" will be more than happy to oblige.

Anderson brings cult behavior into fascinating focus by examining the bond between two characters portrayed by extraordinary actors: the accidental, alcoholic seeker Freddie Quill, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and the suave, all-American swami Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

(Spoiler alert: Minor plot points follow.)

The 2-hour, 30-minute story centers on nervous wreck Freddie, whose primary talent involves concocting cocktails with photo lab fluids, paint thinner and anything else that promises to obliterate consciousness. Drunk and on the run from ill-fated gigs as a department store photographer and farm laborer, Freddie stumbles onto a yacht commandeered by Dodd, his paranoid wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and their entourage.

Dodd, a speechifying, cigarette-smoking, book-writing, dancing, singing, deep-thinking charmer, bonds with Freddie - his "naughty boy" - through an interrogation "process" akin to Scientology's auditing routine that supposedly cleanses the soul of past impurities. Cycling through mood shifts in a stunning star turn, Hoffman coos to his charges in plummy tones redolent of Orson Welles during his Citizen Kane period, sours the entire room when he's in a crappy mood, engages loose-cannon Freddie with twinkle-eyed compassion, and hefts his chunky body through the scenery with self-assured grace that neither his groupies, nor the audience, stand much chance of resisting.

Freddie quickly falls under Dodd's spell. And God help anyone who criticizes the master's grandiose self-improvement philosophy. When one skeptic questions his methods at a party, Dodd turns red and calls his critic a "pig fuck." Later, Freddie beats the naysayer to a pulp.

The Master casts its own weird, R-rated spell not because it yields shocking revelations or clever plot twists. We never learn why Freddie's such a high-strung mess, though his World War II combat experience would seem a likely source of trauma. Nor do we find out where Dodd - a character inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard - comes from or how he acquired his gift for wrapping people around his stubby fingers. There's not much in the way of catharsis, either, since everybody's pretty much the same at the end of the tale as they were at the beginning.

Instead, The Master resonates because its peculiar particulars illustrate why people like Dodd continue to proliferate with near-tragic frequency. Consider such characters as the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who picked spouses for his followers; California Coptic priest Zakaria Botros Henein, whose devotees made the Innocence of Muslims video; and positive-thinking guru James Arthur Ray, whose eager-to-please acolytes sat in a sweat lodge until they died.

Factor in Vanity Fair magazine's recent report about Church of Scientology matchmaking practices for Tom Cruise (denied by the organization), and it seems clear that the top-down command structure depicted in The Master remains in full force six decades on.

Anderson, who's earned five Oscar nominations for previous obsession-themed films including There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, situates The Master at a comfortable remove from contemporary cult dysfunction. He shot using the near-obsolete 65-mm format to summon the sumptuous visual vibe found in Alfred Hitchcock films like Vertigo and North By Northwest. (The film for this review was screened at the optimum 65-mm format; most theaters will show The Master on standard 35-mm film stock.)

Another weapon in Anderson's powerful filmmaking arsenal: composer Jonny Greenwood. The Radiohead guitarist's lush score for The Master references spooky '50s jazz motifs and magnetic tape experiments pioneered by midcentury electronic music wizard Otto Leuning to orchestrate a queasy sense of unease.

Adrenalized by Phoenix's freakishly intense performance, The Master broke art-house box office records with last weekend's limited release and prompted a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. Prior to its nationwide opening Friday, it's already generating Oscar buzz for its stars.

For all its genteel period touches, The Master strikes a chord with contemporary audiences by probing the feral impulses that fuel groupthink then and now. Anderson strips the cult dynamic down to its rude essence when Dodd goes to jail for embezzling money from a wealthy patron. Freddie joins him in a nearby cell after pummeling the arresting officers. The men turn on each other.

"Nobody likes you Freddie," Dodd says calmly. "I'm the only one who likes you."

Freddie, who's just finished pounding his head against a bunkbed in a fit of inarticulate rage, finally screams the forbidden notion that everyone in the audience has surely already considered: "You're making this shit up!"

In The Master's portrait of cult dysfunction, the misfit and the mumbo-jumbo man share a toxic alchemy more dangerous than any mad cocktail that Freddie could dream up.

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