Questions The Master Can’t Answer

The Master Starring Philip Seymour HoffmanDo you crave resolution in storytelling? Or are you comfortable with ambiguity—not just in the movies, but in life? Do you seek to create order, or are you perfectly comfortable in chaos? Is your heart in the grip of the past, or are you living always for the future? Do you lead, or do you follow?

One of the important movie experiences this year is The Master, long rumored as writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s exposé of Scientology, but to get the most out of the picture, you should put aside what you think you might be able to learn about L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise. Clearly, this story set in the 1950s is inspired by the creation of Hubbard’s controversial set of religious beliefs; but it’s more in the spirit of a Citizen Kane than a Primary Colors, which is to say that the story’s broader strokes are of greater relevance than the juicy details.

Because the movie concerns itself more with the hows and whys of general (if extreme) religious belief, to reflect those phenomena successfully it wisely leaves us somewhat open-ended. It is why, in a movie called The Master, it is not the master who is the central part; instead, we are focused on the Joaquin Phoenix character of Freddie Quell, the troubled U.S. Navy man who becomes an adherent of the new faith being constructed “as he goes along” by Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the role of Hubbard surrogate Lancaster Dodd.

The decision to make Freddie the main character tells us where to place our own point of view. Anderson isn’t asking you what it’s like to believe you possess all the answers, nor is he making a pointed critique of those who do believe in their infallibility (that movie, too, could be entertaining and enlightening, but that would be a different film); he’s empathizing with us as either acolytes, skeptics, or avoiders altogether of faith-based dogma. We see the story of The Master through the eyes of a man wrestling with The Big Questions.

Maybe it would be more accurate to say we see the story through the eyes of a man fighting just to reach a place of enough emotional stability to begin asking himself the big questions, because Freddie is very obviously a person bearing terrible emotional scars. From the beginning, he is a vulgar man; after sculpting a naked female body out of sand, he and his fellow sailors on the beach fondle and penetrate it—but it’s Freddie who seems to get truly carried away by the crude and fragile representation of a buxom and “available” woman.

Clearly troubled by (at least) his wartime experiences, Freddie is sent to a psychologist for a Rorschach test. What does he see in the inkblots? What you’d expect a wiseass 13-year-old to see. Coming from an adult man, his responses are a little unsettling (if very, very funny). He may have returned from duty, but he is definitely still “at sea.”

He is also an alcoholic, preferring to imbibe the homemade cocktails he engineers from whatever unlikely ingredients might be at hand (torpedo fuel, anyone?), and he can’t even hold down his day job as a mall portrait photographer without getting into fights—actual fisticuffs, not arguments, mind you—with his customers. It is this tendency to explode into violence that ultimately sends him running to hide on the departing ship where Master (yes, that’s what he’s called by others for most of the film) is celebrating his daughter’s imminent marriage.

When Freddie’s presence is discovered, the enigmatic Dodd meets with him for the first time—or is it for the first time? Dodd repeats often that he believes he’s met Freddie before, a suspicion perfectly natural for a preacher who believes in reincarnation over billions of years. Maybe he recognizes Quell as a fellow alchemist, since in exchange for allowing him to remain onboard to receive his teachings, Dodd insists that Freddie reveal his own “secret formula” for the homemade booze his new mentor finds so tasty.

That bargain brings them to the film’s first tour-de-force scene, the first session of “processing” (or “auditing,” for those of you interested in the Scientology parallels) conducted on Freddie by Dodd. In writing, direction, and especially performance, this is a virtuoso sequence that powerfully illustrates how anyone, in the right moment, could be confused and seduced by a charismatic leader. Freddie is quickly convinced that, almost as if by an act of magic, Dodd has seen directly into his soul and his secrets. As a mixture of cold reading techniques and an interrogation method approaching hypnosis, Dodd’s examination of Freddie’s state of being is the first revelation of the “how.” The “why” is the rest of the film.

Freddie is brought into a community that appears to accept him; he is no longer a loner. He is given a purpose: to spread the Master’s doctrine on the streets. Though Freddie “falls” more than once, by resorting to physical brutality in defense of the Master’s ideas, the community yet gathers around him en masse to witness the Master working him hard towards the psychic breakthrough he knows he requires. Even when the Master’s wife (Amy Adams) wants him thrown out, the Master sticks by him. Freddie returns that loyalty when the Master’s second book of revelations appears to contradict the first, leading to skepticism from members of his own flock.

And yet, for all his forceful outbursts on behalf of Dodd, it starts to look as if Freddie might be unable to walk the walk so much as talk the talk. Guidance turns to threats of permanent expulsion (for those of you still interested in Scientology parallels), and decisions are made by master and follower that alter the course of their relationship. Both Dodd and his wife ask Freddie at different moments to select a point in the distance—one a physical location out towards the horizon, the other a mental image of some desired future—and we recognize these challenges as not simply religious gestures nor the standard stuff of self-help books, but as the existential trials we all face every day, in matters both small and very, very large.

One of the other great moments in the movie comes when Dodd declares to Freddie that he has never known of a person throughout history who was able to follow no master of any kind. We reflect that, before Freddie met Dodd, Freddie was already ruled by many masters. Liquor. Sex. Violence. In a lesser movie, we’d have had the melodramatic moment of Freddie then bouncing back the question: then, Master, what master do you follow? But the film is true enough to realize Freddie doesn’t have the strength or clarity to recognize those sorts of conundrums.

If we are fortunate enough, we do.

And what of Freddie’s ultimate fate? I want very much to provide no spoilers here, though I find it awfully difficult to fully engage a discussion of The Master without remarking upon the movie’s final shot. Rarely do the remaining seconds of a movie come freighted with so much important reference and meaning to everything that has come before. Plenty of film fans endured their fair share of arguments over the climactic “star child” image of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the last moment of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves spawned equal amounts of admiration for its audacious qualities and much derision for the same.

Into this exquisite company comes The Master. Let me say only that the film’s closing image—which I first loathed, and then less than 24 hours later, fell head over heels in love with as I wrestled with its daring, painterly complexity—involves a metaphor for our relationship to spiritual nourishment, and it arrives and departs quickly in order to provoke our uncertainties. Is a faith that sustains us something we create ourselves? Is it fragile enough to be wiped away utterly by one crushing wave, and yet made of material so enduring that it can be rebuilt from shapeless infinity?

Is belief something divine, or something obscene? Can it be both?