One way to ‘read’ Paul Thomas Anderson‘s The Master is as an enormously ambitious, technically brilliant cinematic riff on Ron Hubbard and Scientology, on a time fertile for cults and messianic healing: post-WWII America, when broken men–post-traumatic stress disorder is as old as war–drifted back home, and were, just as many other Americans, looking for meaning and succor in a world that, for some six years or so, seemed to have gone collectively mad.
In this reading, Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) are paradigmatic representatives of these two components of America: the healers and their patients. Their lives intertwine, they take from, and give to, each other, and then, they carry on, bearing the impress of each other’s presence in their lives. Dodd and his Cause serve as a showcase for many of the curious ironies of cult-based healing: that it may introduce greater dangers into the lives of those it claims to mend and repair, that the healers seem as much in need of cures as those they lay their hands on, that in healing the world, they first corrupt and disillusion those closest to them, that nowhere else is enlightenment as murky as in the words and actions of those who claim to pursue truth and eternal being beneath the superficial appearance of endlessly becoming things. (Given these ironies, it is no surprise that Dodd’s persona includes a volatile temper and a fondness for foul cocktails.)
But the story of Lancaster Dodd and the Cause is not just about irony, not just about ostensibly manipulative, dishonest, self-aggrandizing cults. It is also about story-telling and memory, about how we seek the key to the present and future in the past, how therapeutic interventions of many different stripes–sometimes art, sometimes psychoanalysis–converge on narratives and imagination. Dodd puts his patients on a couch (conjuring up visions of Viennese chambers) and invites them to travel back in time to seek clues to unlocking the mysteries of their perplexities; these performances are, unsurprisingly, subject to skepticism from stranger and family alike. But Freddie Quell’s life and his treatment show us that in fact, these past lives may not lie as far back as the skeptics imagine. For our personas are always a sensitive and delicate balancing of the many lives that make them up. The coherent self we present–if we are lucky and skilled enough to do so–is an acutely controlled, finely tensed, dynamic equilibrium of these. Thanks to his traumatic childhood, a broken heart and an estranged sweetheart, a long, bloody war, sexual frustration, and alcoholism, Freddie has come undone; the Cause can perhaps, by making him revisit and reinterpret these sites of disruption, make him cohere again. The Cause can also, as Anderson sometimes seems to suggest, add more incoherence.
If in the end, ‘The Master’ is perplexing for some, it is because of the usual reasons: there are no straightforward resolutions, no neat endings. But in doing so, it might also pose the very sense-making challenge that confronts its central characters: of imposing structure on a series of striking, sometimes shocking, always affecting images and experiences.