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.