Cults exist because, in this world, people who long for acceptance and a place in this world are easily seduced by charismatic figures who can offer answers through what they believe are logical and spiritual ideas of existence. All this is beautifully captured in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master.”
The film followed Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a Navy man and a lost, aggressive soul with an alcoholic creativeness that filled his days by finding new and extreme ways of getting drunk beyond all conceivability. He would be an artist if he weren’t so sad.
Soon after sneaking onto what appeared to be a party cruise, Quell is found by the ship’s owner, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who saw potential in Quell as a future follower of his “spiritual movement,” The Cause.
The film led us on a journey as Quell grew closer and closer to Dodd who used him as his greatest pupil and what seemed like a personal servant. Quell followed Dodd with dog-like obedience as Dodd filled his brain with ideas of hope and purpose ultimately becoming Quell’s as well as all his other followers’ master. Anderson has been known for taking time between his movies, and “The Master” was a good example why. He worked hard at creating these tortured and power-hungry characters who reflect the desires of humanity.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Dodd, powerfully played by Hoffman, was a model of most cult leaders who think quite highly of themselves, believing in their own delusions that you can sense even they know is fake, getting frustrated and defensive when questioned. He used his charm and intellect to swoon lost men like Quell by making them feel useful and loved. He praised Quells alcoholic intellect as a gift whereas others would see it as a curse.
Phoenix stole the show in what was, and will be the best performance of the year as Quell, a haunted, overly aggressive and eventually undoubtedly obedient servant who deep down inside just wanted to recapture the love he let go. He played his character to physical perfection with a face and growl that showed defensiveness and a body language that evoked submissiveness. Just watching him move was a treat in and of itself.
The movie went through the processes of Quell becoming more and more involved in The Cause and ended up taking it more seriously than most of the longtime followers. But soon his convictions were challenged when Dodd’s ideas and practices showed little progress and became more and more fabricated in his eyes. The movie had links to Scientology with Dodd as the L. Ron Hubbard type. The Cause, like that movement, involved humans being the embodiment of spirits who have lived for potentially trillions of years, Dodd being “able” to see into people’s pasts, and types of hallucination counseling. I’m sure many in that group have found offensive in the ways Anderson projected his beliefs, but the story had a much more human core.
It was a story about the men who desired power and praise, the men who followed them to find something more in life and how the two go hand in hand. Quell tried hard to find meaning in what he was hearing, occasionally showing signs of doubt, and Dodd more confidently struggled in constantly trying to convince him that everything he said were true.
The movie was shot in 65mm (the first to be done since Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet”) to a miraculous and entrancing result and was filled with fine supporting performances from Amy Adams as Dodd’s wife and Laura Dern as a devout follower.
“The Master” was a testament to Anderson’s skill as a director. It was about the desires and behavior of human beings rolled up into a unique story to please the more serious movie goers. And like many other films it will benefit from multiple viewings with more and more layers to peel but can still prove rewarding for those who just want a quick once-over.
And if Anderson can show a movie like this to his actor-friend Tom Cruise and have him enjoy it, that is truly saying something.