If you are one of the unlucky millions of people who have been seduced by and lured into a cult only to pull yourself out of it later, you spend years of your life pondering answers to the most basic questions.
How the hell did this happen to me?
What did I miss?
How did they fool me?
Maybe you come up with answers, maybe you don’t. That’s the most brutally realistic point writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson tries to hammer home in his new movie, The Master. Even very, very smart, educated people can miss the key points of the cult seduction process, which seems innocent and helpful enough, but is a proven, practiced method of deception and in its worst cases, thievery.
Anderson does it by tricking you into missing the key points of The Master’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) deception. Watching it this weekend, my wife and I each missed separate, essential, integral points of the movie that you can look back on and say, “I should have known then that this guy was full of baloney.” It wasn’t until we were talking after the movie we were like, “Crap! Why didn’t I catch that!?!?!?” Now imagine if this is your life, not a 2-hour, 15-minute movie that you are only temporarily, passingly invested in. This is your life, one that you have dedicated yourself to. Sometimes that dedication is militant, that’s how much you believe, or want to believe.
So maybe you call it sour grapes when a founding family member blatantly and openly criticizes The Master, but still sticks around because it’s obvious there is money in this racket. Or maybe you think the scheduling of a festival is great news instead of a remarkably coincidental date just before a large sum of money is owed. Or maybe you chalk up a surprising, questionable misstep in The Master’s teachings to an honest mistake, and not a hasty, money-grabbing oversight.
The answers are there in The Master. They’re just cloaked beneath the distractions of screaming, a surprising and somewhat gross amount of nudity, charm, Joaquin Phoenix’s nose bridge scar visible in an alarming number of close-ups, love, logical explanations and the hope there is, truly, a better life for everyone. Anderson forces you to do what an actual, potential cult member has to do. Looks past the BS and decide for yourself as to whether this cult — or this movie — is for you or not. The choice is yours.
Anderson doesn’t come right out and say The Master is actually L. Ron Hubbard, the (in)famous founder of the Church of Scientology, but he didn’t have to since the media already did it for us a year ago when he announced this movie. Even if the media didn’t spoil it for everyone over the last 12 months, most everyone would have gotten the obvious Scientology references. The only thing that could have made it more obvious was Tom Cruise, in full Frank T.J. Mackey garb, randomly running through a couple of scenes incoherently screaming at the top of his lungs about respecting and taming something or other.
Anderson never takes sides, he never says Scientology or one of the other “fringe” religions is right or wrong, and never gives the skeptics a chance to say, “Ha! I told you so!” The Cause — the movie’s term for its Scientology-like religion — is shown to cure Freddie Quell (Phoenix) of a destructive, almost insane case of alcoholism and to make him a better person overall. Even if that cure came through equally insane methods. Whether it’s The Cause or just Freddie’s desire finally to make himself a better person within a structured environment, that’s for you to decide. Others are shown to have benefited, so whether The Master’s teachings are real or not, they’re a strong and charming enough placebo to make people feel better about themselves and be visibly better people. Isn’t that what we all want? So want if it’s the incomprhensible, unexplainable methods of a crack pot that gets us there.
And that’s all the movie is, really. It has no point, very little traditional structure and it seems unfinished. But maybe that’s just part of what Anderson was setting out to do? Isn’t that what cults, religious or otherwise, are? Very little structure, always leaves you with more questions and philosophical answers rather than a concrete ones. This isn’t a movie, it’s more of a realistic exercise in choice that makes very little judgement or pushes you to either side, presenting not facts, but a completely realistic vision of what those facts could be. It’s purely, completely fiction. But from an outsider’s position, you could believe this is what Scientology looks like, start to depressing finish.
Maybe I’m just making excuses for Anderson, one of my three or four favorite directors of all time, because I’d like to believe he wouldn’t make such a broad, sweeping, important movie with no point. Or maybe the performances of Phoenix, Hoffman and good ol’ Landry were so mesmerizing that I wanted to look past the story’s emptiness and call it a religious exercise of choice. I don’t know.
What I do know is I walked out of the theater with a better appreciation for people who have been tricked into turning their lives — and bank accounts — over to a way of thinking that may or may not be total bullshat. GRADE: B+