Reasons to believe

Though it arrives after a five-year interval, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master plays like a companion piece to his previous, There Will Be Blood. Both works are built around a tense, frequently explosive relationship between a smooth-talking messianic figure and a gimpy, black-haired obsessive prone to bursts of startling violence. Both There Will Be Blood and The Master climax with bogus preachers confessing their fraudulence, but where in the earlier film confession was a prelude to savage madness, in The Master it serves as a benediction leading to a surprisingly sweet resolution.

I don’t want to lean on the comparison too hard: The Master stands on its own two feet in Anderson’s catalogue, even as it rises head and shoulders above most of this year’s other serious movies. In There Will Be Blood, belief was shown as something of a natural resource, exploited by Eli Sunday as relentlessly as his antagonist Daniel Plainview drilled for oil. The Master is about the need for belief, and how that need — even when manipulated by an obvious huckster — is not necessarily a bad thing. 

I have no clue as to Anderson’s religious or spiritual leanings, but after seeing The Master I realized that the need for belief is a theme running through all of his work to date. In his  debut feature, Hard Eight, a man commits murder to protect the illusion that has enabled another man to get himself out of the gutter. The porn-industry players in Boogie Nights are sustained by their insistence on seeing themselves as something more than items off a meat rack. Even the uber-nerdy hero of Punch-Drunk Love warns an enemy that being in love has given him the strength and will to defeat all challengers. None of this is shown with even the tiniest trace of sentimentality, least of all in The Master. Anderson’s films may be warmer than those of Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman, his acknowledged models, but he is every bit as observant in capturing human frailty.

Like its predecessors, The Master is rooted in a very particular period of history, which it evokes with an unshowy but very exacting attention to detail. Here it is the prosperous decade immediately following World War II, when America truly dominated the world. The main character, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), has emerged from the Navy with a full complement of physical and psychological wounds and no apparent skills beyond the ability to concoct Sneaky Pete from whatever chemicals come to hand. (At least Daniel Plainview stuck with whiskey; we get our first look at Freddie as he slurps torpedo fuel.) Infantile in his behavior, wracked by sexual fixations and barely able to interact with others, Freddie is too damaged to take part in the postwar prosperity, and he quickly drifts to the bottom of society. With no likely prospects beyond dying in a ditch, Freddie  impulsively stows away on a yacht and comes face to face with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a slickly plausible con man who has set himself up as the head of a self-help cult called The Cause.  

Early reports on The Master said it was a roman a clef about L. Ron Hubbard and the early years of Scientology, and Anderson references Hubbard’s fixation on ships and the sea throughout the film. When Dodd offers Freddie free “processing” to unearth his inner demons, the repetitive questioning seems based on what I’m told are the early stages of Scientological training.  We learn nothing of Dodd’s background, which is too bad — Anderson could have mined Hubbard’s pre-cult career as a science fiction writer to great comic effect. (Check out these scathing reminiscences from Frederik Pohl’s blog for examples.) It’s no surprise that John W. Campbell, the landmark science fiction editor who became an insufferable crank in his later years, fell in love with Dianetics, the precursor of Scientology. Campbell’s view of the future (echoed by many other genre writers at the time) boiled down to opinionated white guys with engineering degrees setting the universe straight; why not have those same opinionated white guys conquer the inner space of the mind as well? When Freddie asks what he does, Lancaster Dodd responds with a list of titles straight from the mouth of one of Robert A. Heinlein’s “competent man” characters. But the fraudulence leaks through in the way Dodd carefully parses his sentences, as when Freddie asks if he owns the yacht, and Dodd replies, “I am its captain.” After all, any two-bit Bible banger has tried-and-true dodges at his disposal. Dodd, applying a pseudo-scientific sheen to spiritual bunk, constantly has to improvise, and he can’t always bring it off. In these clumsy moments, the less-than-masterful master is almost endearing.

There are no bad performances in any of Anderson’s films, but Punch-Drunk Love and, especially, There Will Be Blood showed him moving away from the large ensembles and naturalistic acting of his first three films, and toward stories built around one or two actors giving highly mannered performances. As played by Joaquin Phoenix, Freddie is a twisted rag of a man, starved to the bone, with a mouth perpetually curled to suggest either a grimace or a sneer — when we see him lurching through his job as a portrait photographer, Freddie is like a refugee from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari stranded in a department store. Dodd, all well-fed confidence and poise, is his perfect foil — Hoffman doesn’t so much play the role as soak it in through his skin. Unlike Eli Sunday, whose charismatic preaching seemd sincere (albeit grotesque) right up to the climax of There Will Be Blood, Dodd can’t keep his mask from slipping whenever The Cause gets questioned a little too closely or persistently. Late in the film there’s a memorable scene in which Dodd, tired and distracted after a day’s con-artistry, is approached by a well-meaning devotee (Laura Dern) whose need for clarity triggers a burst of rage as intense as a nuclear test in the desert. She’s so cowed she can’t bring herself to look straight at him, but her sidelong glance makes it clear she’s finally figured things out.

In The Master, the real issue is the nature of Dodd’s relationship with Freddie, which puzzles Dodd’s circle and alarms his wife (Amy Adams), who understands The Cause is the only thing standing between their family and penury. At first, Freddie seems to present Dodd with a worst-case challenge; if he can help this damaged specimen, maybe The Cause offers something real after all. Ironically, the processing sessions do seem to have an effect on Freddie, just as Scientology (at least in its early stages) appears to benefit some people — certainly Tom Cruise credits it with making him one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. In a further irony, wises Freddie up to Dodd’s fakery even as it makes him a slightly more functional human being. When Freddie and Dodd finally part ways, Dodd’s valediction comes across as a wink from one con-man to another — “If you find a way to live without a master, without any master, let us know. You’d be the first person in the history of the world.” We then see Freddie picking up a woman at a bar and giving her a garbled version of Dodd’s processing spiel during their pillow talk. The Cause may not be real, but at least it has given Freddie something new in life — a relatively harmless way to get over on people.

As I said, there is nothing sentimental about The Master. Dodd is never shown as a loveable scamp — indeed, there’s always something creepy about him even in his best moments — and we are never encouraged to see his marks as deserving of their victimization. The film’s take on belief, and the need for belief, is far more subtle than that. It helps to remember that the central relationship begins when Dodd samples and enjoys one of Freddie’s improvised brews. “Is this booze you make poison?” Dodd asks during one session. “Not if you drink it smart,” Freddie tells him. That line takes on greater significance every time I think about it.

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