As an act of recollection, The Master captures the Fifties with perfect pitch, all the more remarkable because the film’s creator wasn’t there. Two stories collide from opposite directions. One is the story of an invisible man, a World War II veteran who never recovers from combat. The other is a charlatan savant skimming the gullible and rising to become a cult leader, the Master of the title. One life has slipped through the cracks, as adrift as Okies in the Dust Bowl but desolately lonely. The other life is a round-the-clock power play to grab the golden ring.
In our gossipaceous age, the film has been read as cinéma à clef about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. The similarities run close, down to the details of Scientology’s science-fiction origins myth and the “auditing” of deformed psyches that will return them to perfection (here known as “processing”). Sitting alone, head in hands below decks on a yacht, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman under full sail) introduces himself as “a writer, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher.” In reality, he’s that rascally pair, the Duke and the Dauphin from Huckleberry Finn, who traveled the muddy hamlets up and down the Mississippi River, passing themselves off as heirs to the French throne until the yawping and gawping turn sour and they get run out of town tarred and feathered.
Mark Twain laughed at these cheerful, strutting tuppenny rogues (Huck is taken in at first and later sympathizes when he sees their humiliating downfall). In the form of an updated, far more pernicious bamboozler, with his garbled message of space aliens, conspiracies against the human race “trillions of years old,” and outlandish claims to cure “certain forms of leukemia” that began in prior lifetimes, Dodd is a spot-on satire on Hubbard.
What makes him fit for a panoramic allegory of the Fifties is the alchemy Dodd conjures with the shattered drifter, his secret twin soul, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix as a saturnine wraith). Here is a shell-shocked victim filled with such rage that it needs to be quelled – hence the name. Dodd uses Freddie as his “guinea pig and protégé.” The two have secret drinking bouts together, knocked senseless by Freddie’s secret potions, which he first brews out of coconut milk, transmission fluid from Jeeps, and toxic what-not in the South Pacific. Later his brews feature store-bought liquor taken to the edge of insanity by adding paint thinner.
As Freddie sinks into dependency on the Master, he wants to be broken down. His will to surrender is as powerful as Dodd’s will to dominate. But he can’t, because the war has done too much damage. Racism made Ralph Ellison the invisible man; here the job is done by shock and grief. Freddie is a type drawn from life, returning soldiers who had bonded through hideous violence and who agreed to keep their bond intact through silence about what they had suffered, but Freddie can’t make the disguise fit. He’s loosely sutured, fixated on sex, numbed and addled by his boozing. He’s failed at everything, even when he sinks so low that he’s picking cabbages with Mexican migrant workers in the Central Valley, His only hope is oblivion in a mind cult.
The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson loves to turn geek shows into epiphanies. His subjects in previous films – pornography, motivational hype, anger management, ruthless capitalism in the early days of oil drilling – have turned overripe in the California sun. The movies are cautionary tales without a caution, since Anderson never shows his hand; we don’t know how much is documentary, how much satire, how much some other emotion (contempt? compassion?). His scalpel anatomizes lost souls in grim detail. But The Master evokes pity for Freddie and terror at the spectacle of Dodd, as if Aristotle’s two requirements for tragedy have been divided up. Or maybe it’s Platonic, like the androgynes split in two to create wandering halves desperate to come together again. In the Symposium the split androgyne is offered as an explanation for the origin of love by one of the banquet guests, Aristophanes.
As you’d expect from Athens’ sharpest writer of comedy, Aristophanes precedes his allegory of the first, double-sexed beings by saying that it will sound ridiculous, but he has a serious intent, to explain why lovers feel whole when they are together. The same intent imbues this film. Dodd feels whole by having a perfect psychological slave; Freddie feels whole by finding a lost father. The implicit eroticism is only brought out in their parting scene, when Dodd banishes Freddie, then executes a volte face with a cunning gleam, crooning Frank Loesser’s hit tune, “On a Slow Boat to China” as if wooing Freddie back. It encapsulates the Master’s secret inner life:
I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China,
all to myself, alone.
Get you and keep you in my arms evermore,
leave all your lovers weeping on the far away shore.
When these lines are repeated, Dodd’s expression turns vicious. He’s the victorious sadist whether his masochist comes or goes. The mind cult is burgeoning; he has a whole raft of victims to choose from now.
What really fascinates about The Master, and raises it to the level of art, is the way the psychodrama of two social outcasts widens into a portrait of our era. The finger isn’t pointing at the Fifties but at us. Anderson takes care not to turn postwar malaise into a cliché. The Bomb is mentioned once, the Beats not at all. That groove is too well worn. Consumerism, a jolly, never-ending parade of empty promises, isn’t turned on its head, a la Randall Jarrell’s melancholy tribute from 1962, A Sad Heart at the Supermarket. Thankfully, Anderson the writer doesn’t summon the moldy ghosts of Holden Caulfield or Jack Kerouac. He sets his story entirely in 1950, the seed time of soul sickness before it effloresced in all directions.
The movie’s allegory is blunt and brutal, at odds with its visuals. Many reviewers have noted that The Master is brilliantly photographed and staged in spectacular set pieces. The churning wake of a ship at sea is a recurrent symbol for Freddie’s homelessness. An idyllic flower-lined street in the small Massachusetts town where he fell in love and then lost the girl exists in limbo between nostalgia and reality. Often such high-calorie visual feasting substitutes for meaning in Hollywood, and lurid theatrical turns, although red meat for actors, risk sounding hollow. In this case, however, Hoffman and Phoenix don’t fight an acting duel (the loser has to be the winner’s understudy in Barefoot in the Park). They plant their feet on solid Method ground, but unlike Brando, the show pony of Method moodiness who refused any social connection, these two connect with a vengeance.
The thrilling height of their compatibility comes in a jail scene after the cops have tracked Dodd down in Philadelphia, arresting him for bilking money from a disillusioned rich lady. As the Master is being led away, Freddie loses it and attacks the police, wrestling them with the ferocity of unleashed psychosis. The two men find themselves in adjoining jail cells, and the camera divides the screen for a long scene, with Phoenix on the left delivering a spectacular show of agitated derangement (banging his head on the steel bed, kicking the toilet until it shatters, tearing the shirt off his back while handcuffed). On the right, meanwhile, a rumpled Dodd has experienced humiliation too, but his tactic is to reassemble his smooth, oily façade, and it’s astonishing to watch Hoffman undergo the transformation (a snake managing to slip back into its sloughed-off skin) while wrapping his silver tongue around his slave Freddie. No match-up can rival it for pure acting in recent years, and even Brando may have to hold their coats. (I shouldn’t slight Amy Adams in a remarkable portrayal of Dodd’s glint-eyed wife, the only person who knows his deep flaws but who is also the policeman guarding them from view. She’s his fierce goader, Lady Macbeth in calico.)
One is reminded that America is so ripe for allegory for the simple reason that we are an allegory. The aspirations of the Pilgrims to find a new world where sin could be redeemed was fully explored in Terence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life (2011). That film ached for transcendence in a way that The Master doesn’t. But the Fall is common to both. Seemingly Anderson works a limited, quirky territory, on the lunatic fringe of the postwar American dream. There’s no reason to believe that these characters couldn’t exist today, substituting the Iraq War for the South Pacific in World War II and a nascent shuck-and-jive guru somewhere beyond Bakersfield for Dodd’s restless wandering to find new followers.
Freddie and Dodd are equally toxic and equally insane. Their quick violence is peculiarly American; so is their doomed optimism about becoming new again. Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers, we’re offering two-for-one demons today. Joaquin Phoenix is so gaunt and haunted that we root for his redemption, however pitiful. Dodd’s derangement is signified by his twinkly smile, a cousin to the secretive smile that Daniel Day Lewis put on display in Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood (2007), but that portrayal of an entrepreneur destroying people with naked violence has morphed into something more slick and sly. Somewhere in the past, Dodd was once sane but too small in his sanity. What he wants is to be larger than life, a con job he can only pull off by setting up a P. T. Barnum cult and seeing how many fools enter the tent.
In the end, what stands out is a miraculous blend of filming, acting, and writing. You can’t tear your eyes away from the moment-to-moment allure of a born cult leader, matched by the moment-to-moment destruction of a follower. Without editorial comment, Anderson is asking if all of us have become hypnotized. The methods are timeless; only the flavor of the spell changes. In the movie’s pitiful coda, a bereft Freddie, thrown out of the cult’s paradise, has picked up a floozy in a pub – Dodd had enticed him to come to England before abruptly banishing him. A pear-shaped girl sits over him in bed, and although he can still get it up, sort of (“Put it back in, it’s slipped out,” he mumbles), Freddie is a boozy mess. All he can think of is to “process” the girl the way the Master cruelly processed (i.e., humiliated) him.
But all that comes out are babbled fragments that make the poor girl giggle. She was only counting on a lark, not this Lost Boy without a Peter Pan. The booze will kill Freddie sooner than later, depending on how much paint thinner he throws in. Dodd will rule an empire of hollow men, twinkling away his fear, battening on other people’s desperation to feel that it’s all okay. Well, I’m okay, you’re okay, so how did we take a wrong turn into hell?