To Serve Man

The only letdown surrounding Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest epic “The Master,” occurred over a year ago when speculators first drew connections between the titular character’s fictional religious movement, “The Cause,” and L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. Since then, well-known Scientologists have publicly denounced the film, pre-production was delayed time after time to the point where many wondered if “The Master” would ever see the light of a theatrical release and now many theater goers and critics alike will line up to take part in the no-holds-barred cinematic offensive that Scientologists have had coming for years.

These people will be disappointed and quite possibly frustrated by “The Master.”

Of course, those connections were warranted. Fascinating scenes in the film depicting the inner workings of “The Cause” feature methods of desensitization uncannily identical to Scientology’s “processing.” But those who have fallen for Anderson’s immaculate characters and craft in the past might have guessed that calling “The Master” a film about Scientology would be like calling Anderson’s classic “Boogie Nights” a film about porn, or his most recent “There Will Be Blood” about oil. The subtext is far more complex.

The film follows a recent WWII navy veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), as he returns to the states in search of a job and a new life whilst coping with a post-trauma-related psychological illness. Whether you were a fan of Phoenix’s televised performance piece/publicity stunt back in 2010, you’d be hard pressed to argue that the actor lacks commitment. Here, in one of the most unhinged performances of the last decade, that commitment is more striking, and frightening, than ever. Quell is believably self-destructive, impulsive and broken. His obsessive nature redefines the word “sex-crazed” (a motif that burns far brighter throughout “The Master” than religion). He, like his country, is an open wound searching for answers.

These answers come in the form of the eccentric Lancaster Dodd (an outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman), who, after finding a stowaway Quell on his yacht, describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all … a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man.” In a following scene, Dodd charms a crowd of wedding guests with a likeable yet far from humble dissertation, and we finally see Quell begin to loosen, his demons temporarily subdued by Dodd’s words.

The relationship between Dodd and Quell  — sidelined by one of Amy Adams’ greatest on-screen achievements as Dodd’s wife (and arguably “The Master’s’” true namesake, as a memorable “love” scene between her and Lancaster might indicate) — is squarely at the film’s core. And whether it is dominant-submissive, or even slightly homoerotic, it is a complicated one. In Dodd, Quell has found a light and a kindness. He’s also found a duty and an escape from the troubling realities of being left to his own devices. In Quell, Dodd has found a guinea pig and a rare kind of servant. Quite possibly, Dodd has also found his only true friend.

Though the film was shot on sumptuous 65mm, Anderson’s visual style is surprisingly unassuming. These scenes from a post-war America — the costumes, the props, the extras — comprise a detailed atmosphere, but Anderson seems less concerned than ever with dazzling the audience via striking diorama shot composition and camera movement. Even the much-anticipated score by “There Will Be Blood” collaborator Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead) manages to stay out of the way, serving only to heighten the tension or ambiguity with the haunting turn of a melody. This film is about the characters, and aptly enough we spend a great deal of time studying them in intimate close-up shots. A twitch, a tear, a quiver, a bead of sweat — all are riveting phenomena taking place on the facial landscapes of these outstanding actors.

Most refreshing, however, is the fact that Anderson has managed to pose even more questions, and answer less of them. All of his films have been steeped in human messiness, but all have paid at least some consolation to the audience by wrapping that mess in a ribbon during the final moments. “Boogie Nights”’ tracking-shot finale brought the band of misfits together as an imperfect but loving family. “There Will Be Blood” saw Daniel Plainview at his tragic end, alone and having destroyed everything around him.

“The Master” doesn’t so much end, but dissipate into more questions. In a way, the relationship marks the peak and imminent downfall of Dodd’s reign. For Quell, oddly enough, the treatment sort of works — but only in a way that could’ve worked for someone with Quell’s particular afflictions. All the while, “The Cause” looms overhead — its presence troubling, but its direct consequences unclear.  

The product is so unrelenting and real that, despite the film’s ambiguity, Anderson seems to have achieved a very particular goal. Rather than attack the institution directly, the filmmaker has turned a compassionate eye to those standing in its shadow. It lends a better understanding of the kinds of people and ideologies that might foster the existence of something like Scientology, and, indeed, a better understanding of human nature as well. (A)