Do you remember that cult TV movie The Wave? I don’t mean that it was a cult hit but rather that it was about how easy it is to form and gain followers for a cult. It took place in a school, and a teacher began a “movement” as a way of demonstrating what a cult is, then it spiraled out of control and became an actual cult. It’s from 1981 and if you missed it you’re not missing much, except I can’t help but think that Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest opus, The Master, was maybe, in some small part, inspired by that movie of the week.
The Master follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he is inculcated in The Cause, a new religion – which many view as a cult – created by the master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Leading up to and following the release of The Master, many were speculating that The Cause was (not-so-loosely) based on Scientology, the cult/religion followed by some Hollywood A-listers. I can see where the specifics of The Cause (particularly its belief of past lives and its assertion that the world is actually significantly older than scientists have learned) might make you think of Scientology, but I see the point of this being broader and about religion and whom we choose to follow in general.
The Cause seeks out weaklings – drifters, loners, addicts, people with no hope left – then breaks them down and rebuilds them in their own (i.e., The Cause’s) image. While some may argue, and perhaps rightfully so, that most religions don’t prey on potential members in such a macabre way, if Ricky Gervais’s The Invention of Lying taught us anything it’s that religion can become a comfort (or maybe a crutch) to people who can’t sort out life’s big questions. Why is something bad happening to me? It’s God’s plan. I’m trying to achieve this objective and if I just pray to God, I’ll reach it.
And people within the cause, including the master himself, can make a compelling argument, even to those who might think themselves above susceptibility. As Dodd explained some of the basic teachings, I found myself thinking, “Wow. What an interesting, comforting thought.” But that’s mostly because Dodd, as brought to life by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is terrifically charismatic.
Typically, Hoffman appears on screen as a bit of a schlub. His hair is messy, his clothes are wrinkled, he bumbles and stumbles his way through sentences. But here, he’s so polished and so slick, he could sell a vegan a double bacon cheeseburger. (Dodd’s wife, Peggy (a stellar Amy Adams), also puts on a good sell, even as she’s wary of newcomer Freddie. Her performance, including some intimate moments between Lancaster and Peggy, make you wonder just who the master is.)
Yet the troubled Freddie falls in and out of Dodd’s spell, sometimes defending the master’s honor (like when Freddie resorts to fisticuffs with Dodd’s son Val (an understated Jesse Plemons) after Val blasphemes to say that Dodd is making it up as he goes along, which is why the teachings keep changing) and sometimes railing against and brawling with the master himself, claiming The Cause is bogus (using stronger words, of course).
Whether or not The Cause is a valid movement, it’s quite a treat to watch Joaquin Phoenix go on Freddie’s journey. As the anti-hero, Phoenix (Walk the Line, Inventing the Abbotts) gives an unsettling performance, swagger mixed with child-like naiveté, eliciting sympathy from the audience (whether that’s Freddie’s fellow Cause members or those of us watching the film) one moment and then completely alienating himself from them/us the next.
The master behind Freddie, Lancaster Dodd and all the provocative ideas is Paul Thomas Anderson, the man who brought us There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. With The Master, Anderson continues to explore epic questions and ask his audience to invest in generally unlikable characters, but he also continues to bring great attention to details and pull off some amazing shots along the way. (Remember that five-minute, single-take opening shot of There Will Be Blood? Anderson doesn't exactly repeat himself in The Master, but there is a psychically-spiraling sequence that’s, well, masterful. We can thank cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., for that.)
Possibly as a cheeky nod to The Wave, Anderson fills his film with images of the sea, often aggressively waving along voyagers. Anderson also fills his film with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s score. The result is a film score that is properly distracting and ultimately effective. As the crux of The Cause is concerned with time, behind every rhythm in Greenwood’s score is a metronome, marking the passage of time.
There isn’t much to spoil here because The Master is mostly a character study, rather than a plot-driven movie, so I’m comfortable leaving you with this quote that more or less sums up the film: “If you figure out a way to live without a master – any master – be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.”