The MasterNovember 10, 2012
By now you have probably heard a great deal about The Master, which has dominated the early chattering about next year’s Academy Awards. Director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has already given the Oscars a shake in 2007, with There Will Be Blood, which secured the Best Actor award for Daniel Day-Lewis. With The Master it would be difficult to say who was actually in the leading role between Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. In this story they are linked almost symbiotically, as a study in complementary personalities.
The first reports about this film claimed the Hoffman character, Lancaster Dodd, was based on L. Ron Hubbard, the pulp science fiction writer and self-styled polymath who founded the pseudo-religion of Scientology. Now it seems that everyone is denying this link.
Does it really matter one way or the other? Surely if someone is dopey or vulnerable enough to be involved with Scientology, their faith will hardly be shaken by a Hollywood feature. Since Hollywood has supplied the Scientologists with their most high-profile recruits it seems only fair that somebody in the movie business presents another perspective on the American taste for cults and their promises of self-actualisation.
In the United States there are numerous branches of Chrisitianity that are no better than cults, so perhaps it would be better to take Anderson and his crew at their word, and view The Master as a film about the psychology of mass persuasion.
Although Hoffman is a commanding, charismatic presence in this story, we spend most of our time with Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell, a navy veteran who struggles to readjust to civilian life after active service in the Pacific.
Anderson takes his time introducing Freddie, who would be a sick puppy even without the trauma of war. Hypersexualised, alcoholic, full of anger and violence, always ready to make trouble, he seems destined for a long, spiralling descent into the lower depths of post-war American society. We watch him lose a job as a photographer in a big department store after he takes a dislike to a client. He turns up next as a cotton picker, but has to run for his life after poisoning an old man with one of the home-made concotions he likes to pour down his own throat.
Seeking refuge, Freddie jumps on board a boat on which Lancaster Dodd is preaching to his disciples about “the Method”, a dodgy blend of spirituality and science that offers relief from life’s problems.
It only takes Dodd a second to realise this stowaway has so many issues he is a perfect guinea pig for his psychological experiments. For the rest of the movie we watch Freddie play Caliban to Dodd’s Prospero. It is a complex arrangment because Dodd seems to need Freddie even more than Freddie needs him. Dodd’s wife, Peggy – played by Amy Adams, who is cast successfully against her girl-next-door image – is worried about the sidekick’s extreme behaviour. His daughter and son-in-law are equally critical, although quietly complicit in Freddie’s misdeeds.
Dodd recognises the danger that Freddie represents but seems to like him all the better for it. By inclination, Dodd himself is a risk-taker, an analyst of human nature who enjoys pushing people to the limits. When his views are challenged his veneer of sophistication can suddenly fall away, revealing an ugly, nasty streak.
Throughout the film we are never quite sure to what extent Dodd is a self-conscious charlatan or a true believer in his own doctrines. One assumes he has to have a basic core of belief in order to relay the gospel convincingly to his followers.
Peggy is just as much of an enigma, fiercely protective of Dodd’s organisation and his personal status, but pragmatic where he is idealistic. For her, it is a matter of safeguarding the family business.
Freddie is willing to belt anyone who expresses reservations about Dodd’s veracity. A textbook example of what Lévi-Strauss called ‘the Savage Mind’, he has developed an unthinking personal allegiance to the Master, while not giving much thought to the mumbo jumbo that passes for doctrine. Freddie is all instinct and sensation, with no capacity for reflection.
In one extraordinary scene we are drawn into his head as he sits in a drunken stupor, fantasising about all the women in the room being naked. At first we think it is some bizarre ritual that Dodd has initiated, but soon realise we inhabiting Freddie’s carnal daydream. Perhaps this also represents the ideal realisation of Dodd’s ambitions: the absolute power that could compell every woman in the room to strip naked at his command.
While Freddie’s desires are centred around sex, Dodd enjoys the thrill of controlling other people’s minds. He needs to be adored and admired, not simply satiated. It is in every way a more serious perversion – one with historical implications.
The Master, USA, rated, 144 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, November 10, 2012