‘The Master’ Is a Great Movie About Faith, Not Scientology

This post contains spoilers for The Master, in so much as an essentially non-narrative movie can be spoiled.

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s gorgeous, confounding, and sometimes irritating new movie, has been assumed to be about the history of Scientology almost since the project’s existence became public. Movie fans buzzed. Harvey Weinstein hired extra security for the premiere to protect the movie from protest. But anyone who went to the movie expecting a searing expose was disappointed. The Master, which follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a deeply alienated Navy veteran who finds his way into the guidance of a charismatic fraud (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the wake of World War II has very little to say about Scientology. But it is a dense, powerful movie about worship, sacrament, and what we take from belief.

We first meet Freddie on a Navy ship, awash in both the baptismal font of the ocean and a rush of religious imagery. General Douglas MacArthur prays “That God will preserve it always” in a broadcast about America and the end of the second World War, and by extension, the demobilization of the system that’s given Freddie both structure and an identity. A lecturer speaking to him and other men who, by implication, are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, tells them “You men are blessed with the rejuvenating power of youth.” In a session with a therapist, the man asks Freddie “According to the history here, it says you saw a vision of your mother.” Freddie skitters away from the implication of contact with divine—or insanity—cautioning “It wasn’t a vision. It was a dream.” Back on land, Irving Berlin’s “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” plays as Freddie takes department store photographs as static as Russian Orthodox icons. When, on the run from the Salinas fields where he was picking cabbage, Freddie stows away on a pleasure boat, the one he hops is called Alethia, the ancient Greek word for truth, and the term Martin Heidegger used to mean “unconcealedness,” the revelation of the contours of the world. As the Aletheia sails off into the sunset, and towards the Panama Canal and its ultimate destination of New York, its masts are twin white crosses against the night sky.

Freddie isn’t capable of reading, much less noticing the existence of such signs when we meet him, but much of what’s compelling about the early scenes of The Master is the way the movie captures the larger context those signs give meaning to: the way we evade and disguise the needs we desperately hope will be fulfilled, be they spiritual or bodily. Freddie, a desperately lonely man, finds a way to be part of his fellow sailors’ playful day on the beach when he pretends to have sex with a woman they’ve built out of the sand. But while the joke is his means of participation, his need is real: Freddie masturbates on the beach, ends up curled up next to the figure in the sand as the other sailors slip away. But when he finds himself in proximity to connection, Freddie can’t help but treat the practices of the people around him as a bit of a joke, a tool to get what he wants without actually having to make commitments or risk vulnerability. When he joins the acolytes of Lancaster Dodd, the man who was dancing with his wife on the deck of the Alethia when Freddie decided to stow away, at a table where they’re taking notes on a series of recordings, Freddie passes a note to one of them asking “Do you want to fuck?” even as the voice on the tape tells him “You are not ruled by your emotions.” When Freddie trails in Lancaster’s wake to New York, he pockets a statue of a reclining nude woman that he finds in the house of one of the Cause’s benefactors, only to put it back.

Dodd gives Freddie both the structure to restrain and channel his behavior, and a sanctification of his talents for both violence—and for the first half of the movie more significantly—brewing bizarre cocktails made with everything from photographic chemicals to paint thinner. The first person Freddie tries to share his potions with is a pretty department store clerk who sips, coughs, and is dismayed when the sacrament, rather than bringing them into closer communion, makes Freddie fall asleep on a restaurant banquette. After fleeing the store and his job as a portrait photographer, Freddie works as a farm laborer, where he doles out drinks of his next batch fretfully, warning the Filipino pickers who work with him not to drink too much. This time, the results are worse than a lost shot at a relationship: one of Freddie’s coworkers dies. “I didn’t poison him,” Freddie insists. “I didn’t do anything wrong. He took the drink himself.” The thing that connects Freddie to other people ends up polluting his relationships to them.

That is, until he meets Lancaster Dodd, who tells Freddie that “I sampled it and ended up drinking it all,” in a less-than-subtle foreshadowing of how deeply Freddie will imbibe Dodd’s improvisational theology. Dodd is himself a bit of a symbol, speaking for Freddie to the first time in a red dressing gown that, combined with his pale hair, conspire to make him look like Santa Claus, and at a wedding dinner, making himself out to be Saint George with a story of a defeat of a dragon: “I wrestle, wrestle, wrestle him to the ground. I say sit, dragon sits. I say stay, dragon stays.” Fittingly, the exchange between Freddie and Dodd is a ritualized exchange over Freddie’s liquors. “I have no idea of the contents of this remarkable potion. What’s in it?” Lancaster asks Freddie. “Secrets,” his protege promises. Dodd is intrigued by both the effects of Freddie’s potion and his encounter with a bullshit artist who may not have Dodd’s own flair with a concept, but whose work produces more immediate results on the appropriate converts. He asks Freddie to cook up another batch, which Freddie does, tapping powders into glass vessels, streaming chemicals through bread, adding a stand-in for the Body to his version of the Blood. But Dodd, unlike Freddie, has the sense to check one last time on what he’s imbibing before he commits fully. “Is this booze you make poison?” he asks Freddie, mixing the question in with a series of other queries during the interrogations Dodd refers to as “processing” and that make up a fundamental part of the Cause. “Not if you drink it smart,” Freddie swears to him. Dodd’s approach to Freddie’s hooch will prove to be more meticulous and self-preserving than Freddie’s fevered quaffing of the elixir Dodd offers him.

While the question of whether Freddie’s proclivities in drink contribute to his social deficits remains unresolved throughout The Master, it is clear that Freddie finds the Cause attractive in part because the movement can make use of his talent for violence and humiliation. When a skeptic, John More (a name he shares with the president of the Institute for Creation Research, though whether the joke is intentional or not is unclear), tries to suss out the basis for Dodd’s theories at a New York gathering, telling him “I find it quite difficult to comprehend…to believe that time-traveling hypnosis can cause world peace,” Dodd tongue-lashes the man without actually answering his questions. But it’s Freddie who enlists Dodd’s new son-in-law to visit More with him late at night and deliver a brutal beating. “Well, I don’t think you have to worry about Mr. John More speaking out against you,” he tells Dodd with satisfaction. If he meets with neutral silence rather than outright approval, it’s more affirmation than Freddie’s received before. And he repeats the performance with a Dodd follower who expresses his dismay with Dodd’s second book, The Split Saber, meant to be a major advancement in The Cause, telling Freddie “If it were up to me, I’d chop this thing down to a three-page pamphlet and give it to people before they got on the subway.”

As it becomes clear when Freddie is detained along with Dodd when the latter is arrested for embezzlement in Pennsylvania, Freddie embraces the Cause less for the doctrine than for the structures it provides to him. When the police come for Dodd, Freddie is in the middle of a conversation with Dodd’s son Val (the marvelous Jesse Plemons), who tells his father’s most fervent convert “He makes all this up as he goes along. You don’t see that?” Freddie doesn’t, and he’s initially devastated, telling Val “You should say something. Do something. Say fuck you. Be a man,” breaking down when the police arrive and fighting all the way into his cell. When Dodd tries to calm him, telling Freddie “Your fear of capture and imprisonment is an implant from millions of years ago. It’s not you. It’s not you,” Freddie screams at him. “You’re making this shit up…What facts, what fucking facts…You make shit up. Your son hates you.” But Dodd’s right that Freddie needs to be talked down from his anger, and correctly intuits what Freddie needs to be induced back into the Cause again. “Who fucking likes you except for me?” he asks. “Just me, Freddie. I’m the only one who likes you. And I’m done with you.” It’s a rejection that promises Freddie a path back to a place he’s come to value, a position and a group of people he can’t hightail it from across a department store’s marble floor or across the furrows of a field ready for cabbages. And of course Freddie returns from jail to a series of numbing exercises that are as dull and hypnotic for the viewer as they must be for the man performing them. “I can leave any time I want to. But I choose not to. I choose to stay here,” Freddie tells himself once the lessons have lulled him into a kind of calm. He’s so broken that self-control is a miracle to him, Saint Lancaster raising the emotional cripple to his feet.

While much of The Master is dedicated to the reasons Freddie is so attracted to The Cause, the movie makes time for a number of efficient studies of what might draw people less damaged and particular than he to Lancaster Dodd. There’s Val, whose amusement at his father’s fakery flares into something approaching real hope when it seems like Dodd might be arrested and exposed. But at the end of the film, Val remains entrenched in the Cause, eased through life and into a beautiful double-breasted suit in the cathedral of his father’s imagination. Val may never have cared much whether Dodd’s doctrines were meaningful or faked, but Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern, who enters the movie clad in a red skirt, a white shirt, and a red sweater, an icon of the faith that is America), a wealthy Pennsylvanian backer of Dodd’s, begin the movie as a true believer, turning her home over to Dodd and his entourage. But when The Split Saber is released, her loyalty and careful attention to Dodd’s practices sets her up for a bad shock. “I did notice on page 13, there’s a change,” she asks him tentatively, inquiring about an alteration to the series of questions Dodd and his followers use to regress members of the faith to what Dodd tells them are past lives. “You’ve changed the processing platform question. Now you say ‘Can you imagine?’ If our goal is to evoke memory…” She’s uncovered a slip that reveals Dodd’s own lack of faith in what he’s been teaching, a dodge that would take him off the hook for some of his theories about time travel and past lives and make him responsible only for metaphors for the injuries that his followers seek to be relieved of. Dodd rebukes her, but it’s unclear if she finds a way to paper over the inconsistencies in a doctrine she once cherished.

As Peggy, Dodd’s current wife, Amy Adams is spectacular in a role that explores the power that faith can provide to religious women and women religious, and the curdling disappointment that can accompany their arrival at the limits of the influence devotion can confer upon them. Peggy, presented as an avatar of period motherhood, is alternately ferocious and insecure. “Who’s attacking him?” Freddie asks her as they begin to know each other aboard the Aletheia. “People who are scared,” Peggy tells him, throwing in Dodd’s ex-wives for good measure. She isn’t merely a little woman trying to demonize the rivals who preceded her, or to protect her husband: Peggy has a vision of her own proper role, and it’s not merely that of wife and mother. “The only way to defend ourselves is to attack,” she tells Dodd. “We will never dominate our environment the way we should unless we attack.” And a powerful sequence in which Peggy, heavily pregnant, masturbates Dodd while making him promise to abstain from Freddie’s concoctions, implies that she may be the real power in the family and in the Cause, with Dodd as the charismatic frontman. “Come for me. No more of that boy’s hooch. Say it again. Come for me,” she instructs her husband in a pantomime of the repetitions that Dodd uses in processing to reinforce concepts in his followers. After he complies, both physically and in his promises, Peggy cleans his semen off her hands with a meticulous distaste, and heads downstairs to extract the other part of the bargain from Freddie. “I want you to place something in the future for yourself that you would like to have,” she asks him, alone in the dark. “It’s there for you. You can get it whenever you want…Now tell me that you’ll quit boozing…Say it again…Say it again…Say it again.”

But while the Cause may give Peggy a position she’d be unable to achieve as a single woman, or as a woman married to a man without a following, a seat on the dais beside him at the Cause’s congress, the duty of announcing the group’s biggest moments, she ultimately cannot sever the bond between Dodd and Freddie. When their acolyte follows Dodd to England, Peggy is disgusted by Dodd’s continued investment in a wreck of a man who appears to believe more in Dodd than in the Cause itself. “This is something you do for a billion years or not at all,” she tells her husband. “This is pointless. He isn’t interested in getting better.” Freddie isn’t just awkward and distasteful, he’s the embodiment of Peggy’s fear that Dodd himself is being worshipped rather than his—and perhaps her—ideas. True converts can shine glory on Peggy even if they do so indirectly. But Freddie’s love for Dodd, the dream so powerful it brings him to England, is a sun absorbed by Dodd’s planet, leaving Peggy to coldly contemplate the limits of her control within the Cause she so fervently embodies.

And perhaps she fears that Dodd has doubts about their project. “If you find a way to live without a master, without any master, let us know,” Dodd tells Freddie as his acolyte tries to decide to vanish into the Cause forever or be cast out. “You’d be the first person in the history of the world.” It’s not a subtle line, but it is, intriguingly, contradicted by what follows. Freddie goes out into the world, into a bar, where he asks a young woman not if she wants to fuck, but if she’ll have a drink with him. They end up in bed, and as pillow talk, Freddie turns to the questions Dodd asked him in their first processing session so long ago. It’s an odd moment, but surprisingly, sweetly, his ploy, the only resource Freddie has, works. I don’t know that I trust that in five years, Freddie won’t be dead of drink, by violence, or his own hand. But in this moment, the Cause has given Freddie what he needs to fulfill Dodd’s promise that “What we will do now will urge you towards existence in a group, society, a family.” Dodd has it wrong: the true test of a faith is whether it can live and thrive in the soil of human experience, beyond the watchful eye of prophet or martyr or Master. But Freddie also proves him right. For this one terribly damaged man, the Cause has given him, if only for an afternoon, the thing he needs to live.

Note: The initial version of this post contained a couple of mistransliterations of names, which readers have been kind enough to note here. I’ve fixed all of them.