The Master
directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
The Weinstein Company

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, The Master, is a visually stunning, inventive, and challenging work. Its elliptical style, however, might seem mystifyingly dull to casual moviegoers. They will likely disagree that the film needs to be seen twice.

Anderson, a college dropout, is the leading Hollywood auteur of his generation. Like Quentin Tarantino, he comes from the self-taught video-freak school of filmmaking. But unlike Tarantino’s, Anderson’s creative neocortex is not entirely crammed with B- picture narratives and kung fu violence. Nor has Anderson succumbed to the filmmaking sensibility that affects so many of his generation: adolescent vulgarity. There are no stupid characters, and there is no puerile sadism or how-gross-can-you-get. Indeed, his most remarkable achievement may have been writing and directing Punch-Drunk Love (2002), in which Adam Sandler—the archetypal practitioner of adolescent vulgarity—put aside his cartoon persona and acted like a real human being.

Anderson’s scripts and direction bring out the best in all his actors, including notables such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, William H. Macy, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar for his performance in There Will Be Blood (2007). That film earned Anderson Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations.

There Will Be Blood, like most great films, had the impact of a Greek myth. Although Anderson based his screenplay on Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1927), the film bore little resemblance to that left-tilted, realistic novel. Anderson’s Nietzschean protagonist was a power-mad tycoon who used his adopted son as a pawn and destroyed everything human that came near him.

The dyad of power-driven man and his adopted son seems to fascinate Anderson. It appears in various avatars in every film he makes. In his latest, the father figure, “the master,” is Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) in place of L. Ron Hubbard, science fiction and screenplay writer, author of Dianetics (a theory of human psychology and psychotherapy), and founder of the controversial Church of Scientology. A promising subject for Anderson, but given the power and influence of the Church in Hollywood and its contentious public posture, a dicey enterprise as well.

Hubbard, who died in 1986, was revered by his followers. He brooked no criticism; “Don’t ever defend. Always attack,” he wrote. His preferred venue of attack was the courthouse, where his battalions of lawyers would litigate defiant critics into the poorhouse. Dianetics was a version of standard psychotherapy in which the indoctrinated would recover every memory of this life (and past lives) and eliminate the pain and trauma. Many of the ideas in Dianetics, Hubbard admitted, were based on early Freud, but when he moved on to Scientology his emphasis turned to the spiritual, his science fiction version of the soul and its transmigrations. He viewed mental health professionals as the enemy who attacked the spiritual side of their patients. At the 1969 convention of the American Psychiatric Association in Miami, a small plane flew overhead trailing a banner that read, “Psychiatry Kills.” Scientologists picketed many subsequent conventions and launched the anti-psychiatry movement, attacking the profession, its diagnoses, and its treatments.

Anderson now acknowledges that the film draws on the early days of dianetics-Scientology and its treatment methods. Insiders report that Anderson doctored his original screenplay to make Dodd less power-mad and paranoid. He entrusted the role to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who tried to convey “a certain kind of gravitas” rather than oddity. The attack-do-not-defend pose is assigned to Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who is the militant force behind “the Cause,” the film’s name for Scientology.

Hoffman may be Hollywood’s most versatile actor. He seems able to transform himself at will, and in this role, he is a lovable charlatan, quixotic rather than cruel. Even his grandiosity is charming. Among the recruits to Dodd’s Cause is Freddie Quell, a troubled sailor returning from the Pacific after the many naval battles of the Second World War. With encouragement from Hoffman, Anderson cast Joaquin Phoenix as Quell, who will be the test case for Dodd’s healing methods, as well as his adopted “son.” Quell is suffering from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder (before psychiatry gave the condition that name). And in Phoenix’s performance there seems to be something even darker.

Phoenix grew up in the shadow of his older brother River, the handsome and talented actor who died of a drug overdose at age 23. Joaquin is not handsome. He was born with what appears to be a microform cleft, the remnant of what could have been a cleft palate. It is the kind of slight disfigurement that draws a person’s unwilling eyes. Over the course of the film it becomes more noticeable. Anderson worked with a new cinematographer, Mihai Malăimare Jr., and 70-millimeter film that intensifies every detail.

As the plot unfolds, Quell becomes increasingly thin and distracted. His posture and body language are like those of a chronically psychotic person. Phoenix explained in interviews that he wanted to “expose the id.” He does more than that, living on the edge of madness. Phoenix is not acting a part he has been given; he is creating the character before our eyes. Indeed, in the months before he was cast, there were reports that Phoenix was psychologically disturbed. A few years earlier, he had been through rehab for alcoholism. His parents were missionaries for the Children of God, a cult now called The Family International. Hoffman reportedly told Anderson that Phoenix “scares me, in a good way.”

• • •

The Master opens with an overhead shot of the roiling blue-white wake of a Navy ship. It is an impressive cinematic image: energy made visible. The Japanese have surrendered, and, in what must be an impromptu victory celebration, Quell descends into the dark hold, unscrews the back of a torpedo, and drains off the 180-proof alcohol used as fuel. We learn that Quell’s specialty is dangerously toxic homemade liquor.

Next the troops are enjoying some R & R on a Pacific beach. In the foreground Quell menacingly hacks away at a coconut with a machete. In the background is a circle of half-naked men. A few pair off to wrestle, creating a tableau that conveys the homoeroticism of sexually frustrated men. To one side is a sand sculpture, a larger-than-life naked woman. Freddie first mounts and simulates intercourse with the sand lady and then fingers her as the others look on. This is not done as hijinks: it is raw sexual desperation. Next we watch him from the back frantically masturbating into the ocean.

The dyad of power-driven man and his adopted son fascinates Anderson.

The beach scene ends with another overhead shot: Freddie lying next to the sand lady like a child seeking comfort from his mother. This is the stuff of Quell’s character, much of it, Anderson says, improvised by Phoenix: rage, sexual desperation, addiction, antisocial behavior, and, underneath it all, a lonely, love-needy child.

If There Will Be Blood was mythic, The Master is oneiric. The viewer needs to find narrative sequence and coherence in the cinematic images as one must in one’s dreams. Although the film has no straight-line narrative, each of the episodes is aesthetically complete, the visual equivalent of a well-crafted short story.

Some of Anderson’s arresting cinematic compositions could have been inspired by surrealism and others by Norman Rockwell, but all of them belong in the world Anderson creates. So does an homage to the director John Huston. After World War II, Huston filmed scenes at a hospital for returning service men suffering from what was then called “war neurosis.” Huston and his crew, with no apparent concern for medical confidentiality or privacy, filmed these troubled men being tested, interviewed, hypnotized, and treated with sodium amytal. Watch that documentary and you will recognize the hospital scenes where Quell is being examined and treated. Quell’s desultory encounters with mental health professionals provide a striking contrast to the benevolence of Lancaster Dodd.

Before he gets to Dodd, Quell has turns as a photographer in an upscale department store and then as a farm laborer harvesting cabbages. Both end in clashes with potential father figures. Quell escapes the farm, a terrified, lonely human figure running across brown fields against a moonless horizon. He doesn’t stop until he gets to the San Francisco harbor and stows away on a yacht. The next morning he meets the yacht’s owner—Dodd, who welcomes the stowaway. It is a gracious reception that Quell had no reason to expect.

• • •

Anderson has described this dyad of father and adopted son as a love affair. Critics have interpreted it in many different ways, from Hegel’s master-servant struggle to a repressed homosexual relationship. But to any psychoanalytic therapist it will seem unmistakably familiar. It is the kind of love connection that happens between patient and therapist; Freud called it transference. It is also the real emotional connection at the core of all human intimacy, the feeling of having found someone who understands you.

Quell displays the characteristic feature of serious mental illness, “inappropriate affect.” He is emotionally out of step with everyone he meets, even when he is having sex. His laugh is a manifestation of his insecurity and defensive isolation. That laugh will briefly disappear in his first “session” with Dodd, the Master, indicating that an empathic connection has been made and Quell’s psychic isolation overcome.

The question for Quell is whether this love can be trusted. Of course, the passage through psychotherapy is not all about love. There is anger, resentment, shame, and even rage. All of that is played out in the relationship between Dodd and Quell. And Dodd’s goal is not just to treat Quell and let him go. Dodd wants to convert Quell to the Cause. Dodd is no neutral, emotionally removed therapist. He challenges Quell, drinks the toxic brew with him, bellows with pleasure, and asks for more. He suggests that he knew Quell in a previous life, and he anoints Quell his “guinea pig and protégé.”

This is indeed a love story, as Anderson calls it, and it is Dodd’s love of his deranged adopted son that makes the megalomaniac charlatan almost admirable. Without that love it seems Quell would be lost. Dodd has become his only human connection.

Quell seems to make some progress in his sessions, and we begin to understand his defensiveness. He relives the pain of his one true, lost love affair. One can assume that Dodd is pleased when the processing (“auditing” in the language of Scientology) of painful memories reaches the point where Quell can talk about them without being upset. Still, Peggy Dodd thinks Quell is beyond saving. But the Master will not give up.

• • •

Lancaster Dodd is more central to the film than Quell, and Hoffman is brilliant in every scene, more contained than Phoenix but perhaps more imaginative. Dodd, attempting to build the Cause, manages gravitas even in surreal moments. In one scene at the New York mansion of a wealthy woman, Dodd’s claim about curing leukemia is challenged by a skeptic. In the midst of a measured response, he briefly loses control, and we glimpse what lies behind the gravitas.

The Cause entourage moves on to homelier quarters in Philadelphia. At a gathering Dodd breaks into song and dance—“We’ll Go No More A-Roving”—and suddenly all of the women in the room, clapping in time to the music, appear stark naked. Perhaps we are meant to understand that this is Quell’s point of view. In another great moment Dodd and Quell are taken off to jail and placed in adjacent cells. Quell goes wild and destroys his cell as Dodd looks on. Amazingly, Dodd makes it through both these scenes without seeming too odd.

The entourage goes on to Phoenix, Arizona, for a rebirth of the Cause and the unveiling of Dodd’s new book. Quell and Dodd go out into the desert to dig up the only draft of the book, buried like treasure. They will later return to the desert for a game Dodd has devised: pick a point, drive a motorcycle as fast as you can to get to it, and then come back to the others. Dodd, gravitas intact, takes pleasure in risking his life on a speeding motorcycle, as apparently L. Ron Hubbard did. When it is Quell’s turn, he races off but does not come back, and the Dodd family have to go traipsing after him. It suggests a parting of ways, and, indeed, as Hubbard did, the Dodds go off to England, leaving Quell behind.

Dodd eventually invites Quell to England, promising a cure. The scruffy Quell turns up in what is now the prosperous headquarters and school of the Cause. He is ushered into Dodd’s great, windowed office. Behind a huge desk is the Master; at his side is wife Peggy. She rejects Quell and lays down the law. There will be no further efforts at a cure, and he has no place in the Cause. Dodd apparently accepts her verdict, but begins to croon the love song “Slow Boat to China.” This is not how a psychotherapeutic relationship terminates. Nor does it seem like an offer of homosexual or religious love. Nor is it ridiculous. It is a plaintive, wistful love that Anderson himself has dreamed up for his two brilliant actors as they end their affair.

But the film does not end there. Quell trudges off to the nearest pub and over his pint spots a plump young woman. He points to the upstairs questioningly, she points to herself—do you mean me? In the next scene she is on top of him having intercourse, and they start chatting. It may be one of Phoenix’s improvisations, but with his now-familiar nervous laugh he tells the young woman, “It fell out, will you put it back in?” Then the film ends.

If one listens carefully in this final scene, one might find a narrative ending to the film, or at least a psychological closure. Quell is using the same lines with the young woman that the Master had used with him in their first session. The adopted son has identified with his father and found a way to connect that might keep him out of the madhouse. That at least is one reading of a film that is a tapestry of unforgettable scenes. The Master allows many readings and will engage cineastes for years to come.