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There Will Be Spiritual Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master
There Will Be Spiritual Blood

The “R” rating of The Master is well-deserved. Filled with the sexual aberrations, the drunken philosophizing, and the bizarre activities of The Cause and its leader Lancaster Dodd, P.T. Anderson’s exposé of the cultic mind, seen through the eyes of a grossly needy, psychologically disturbed ex-seaman named Freddie Quell, is as raw as one would expect from the director. Anderson’s films have always dealt with personalities that are larger than life, and the main characters in this film are no exception.

The film has been controversial mostly because the rumors that have been going around about it for many years that Anderson was writing a thinly veiled report on the Hollywood-dominant cult, Scientology, are largely true. There are so many parallels between the movie and the historical details of Scientology (cf., an article written by Marc Headley, an ex-Scientologist) that it is impossible not to accept the movie’s foundation in that cult, though Quell is a character conceived by Anderson and developed by him and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays him masterfully in the film.

The most interesting thing about Scientology is its charismatic founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Whatever one thinks about him, Hubbard was a larger than life character, and yet a charmer par excellence. And so is Lancaster Dodd, played by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman. Early in the film, in answer to Freddie’s question, “What do you do?” Dodd replies, “I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, …but above all, I am a man.” The quotation is telling, both for the character and its analog in Hubbard. Hubbard claimed to be all these things and more without a shred of training or certification to back them up, but then would win your heart by being self-effacing, getting down to the level of the person with whom he was speaking, and making them feel right at home. Dodd and Quell experience the same kind of back and forth, with Dodd virtually threatening Freddie’s eternal salvation one moment, and remarking about the minty taste of Kool cigarettes as he shares one with Freddie the next.

The movie is largely about the relationship between the “aberrant” Freddie and the dominant “MOC” (Master of Cause), though a third part is also played beautifully by the remarkable Amy Adams. That role belongs to the wife of Dodd, who alternately is his biggest fan and most subservient follower but also his master and strongest confidant. Adams plays a composite of Hubbard’s three wives, the last of whom, Mary Sue Whipp Hubbard, bore four of his children and was married to him for thirty-four years. Mary Sue took the fall for Hubbard, when she and eight other leaders of the cult were indicted by a Grand Jury for a range of offenses resulting from an FBI raid of the organization, but she was known to be a strong force in Hubbard’s life and in the movement as well. At one point she ran the church, when Hubbard became a recluse near the end of his life, but she was later tricked out of her leadership by the wily David Miscavige, who still is the leader of the religion.

None of this is in the movie since The Master only covers some of the early days of the Scientology movement in the 1950’s, yet the tendency in this review to slip into extensive discussion of Scientology details does say something about the movie. The story of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard is much more interesting than P.T. Anderson’s movie about The Cause and Lancaster Dodd.

The chief failing of the film is its plot, which meanders and folds back upon itself with long scenes of exposition of the techniques of mind control practiced by the cult. The characters don’t develop; they simply are, and what they are, is not half so interesting as the real thing. Even though there are police busts, strange orgiastic dances, and tense, disturbing “sessions” like the one in which Freddie is made to walk between a window and a wall for the better part of a day saying what each felt like to him whenever he touched it, the movie does not give any sense of progression, and that would be fine if the characters at least did, but they do not. They are the same pitiful wretches they clearly were at the beginning of the film.

Oddly, the strength of The Master is in its performances, though many of its production values are outstanding, especially the lighting and the cinematography. Anderson must take some of the praise for The Master’s great performances as the film’s writer and director, and he is noted for the performances he has gotten out of Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, Tom Cruise in Magnolia, and most notably Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Many of these were nominated for Academy Awards, and Day-Lewis won for Best Actor.

In The Master, Phoenix creates a character, who is the most memorable drifter I can remember since Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. Totally without a center, Freddie Quell wants very much to believe, but simply can’t overcome his desire to be his own man with no rules and no authority. In fact if the film is about anything, it seems to be that no matter how sick and demented you are, you are still better off with no master telling you what to do, how to feel and what to believe. The role earned Phoenix an Academy Award nomination, and in any year other than this one in which the afore-mentioned Day-Lewis virtually channeled Abraham Lincoln, he would have had a very good chance of winning. Hoffman and Adams also garnered Oscar nominations for their performances and were talked about seriously as in the running for the award.

The Master, like all of the films of P.T. Anderson, leaves the viewer filled with distrust, doubt and despair. There are no answers; we are simply left to travel this veil of tears by ourselves, as well as we can, but with no hope that our lives have any significance in the greater scheme of things. In fact, there is no greater scheme of things. There are only shysters and clowns, and this film is replete with both, sometimes in the same character. Lancaster Dodd, with his renditions of “Slow Boat to China” and “A Rovin’” is a clown, as are all the men and women who follow him. But he is certainly a shyster, too, with his talk of past lives and books that kill people. In the end only Freddie is neither shyster nor clown, but he is pitiful, sex-addicted and as aimless as he ever was. If one wants a picture of where the philosophical and practical atheism of America in the third millennium can lead you, one need look no further than The Master. It is not a pretty picture.

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