216It really is quite risky to mock a religion. Wars have been started over less.
It does not matter what religion it is – even if it involves a billion-year-old intergalactic confederacy of tyrannical aliens who, as a result of overpopulation on their home worlds, dispatched a billion ‘souls’ to what is now known as Earth (using DC-10 transport planes, no less) and seeded them around an explosive volcano ready for any humans which may be subsequently born on the planet, millions of years later, to be instilled with these alien spirits.
The point is that, no matter how crazy it sounds to some people, if just a few people believe in it, mocking it can be quite a dangerous affair. It doesn’t matter if dedication to the cause is quantified entirely on the basis of how much money you are prepared to invest – Tom Cruise and John Travolta being the highest rated ‘priests’ as a result – nor does it matter that the secrets to the religion are kept on board a ship at sea, which only the highest (i.e. richest) followers can board and explore. One person’s nonsense is another person’s highly lucrative con-artists’ cult. And one person’s cult is another person’s religion.
Cleverly avoiding overt controversy – or, indeed, being subject to one of the many lawsuits which the ‘Church of Scientology’ freely slap upon anybody who rises up to criticise some of its more preposterous beliefs/practices – acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson (who did the staggeringly intense There Will Be Blood as well as partnered with ‘The Church’s’ own Tom Cruise for Magnolia) has chosen to craft a story that has seemingly nothing to do with Scientology. It never mentions the names of the real individuals, nor uses any of their trademark terms. It never once suggests that it is based on fact. Indeed it looks to be little more than a study on early post-traumatic stress disorder, on the face of things.
Yet, upon closer inspection and reflection it becomes eminently clear that this is one master director’s superb approach to critiquing an organisation who have proven to be largely untouchable over the last few decades. The parallels are impossible to ignore but any direct allegations are impossible to prove. Still, this is a wonderfully underplayed investigation into a group that many would love to publicly call a highly corporate cult. Here Anderson has called them a great deal worse, without saying a word.
The story follows disillusioned World War II veteran Freddie Quell, a sex-obsessed and alcohol-fuelled man who struggles to reintegrate himself into society. Happening across an enigmatic individual called Lancaster Dodd, whilst stowing away aboard his yacht, Quell finds himself strangely drawn to the man who is curiously referred to as ‘Master’ by both friends, family and followers.
Quell soon discovers that Dodd has founded a movement which is supposedly dedicated towards achieving the true original state of perfection within every man, and thus within mankind. Dodd believes that this can only be achieved by drawing deep into the recesses of an individual’s psyche, whereupon he can revisit and thus ‘fix’ disturbances, both earlier within the individual’s lifespan, and also in past lives that the individual’s soul has experienced. Undertaking his new master’s rigorous questioning regime – called ‘Processing’ – Quell finds a hint of elusive benefit to the procedures but becomes increasingly disturbed by the seemingly pointlessness to the whole system. He searches for a true purpose to it all; for some real answers – but struggles to find any.
Whilst fans of the works of Paul Thomas Anderson will probably be divided over his latest creation – certainly those who love the intensity of There Will Be Blood might struggle with the ambiguity of The Master – all of the trademarks elements of this master filmmaker are evident throughout this piece. Whether in the sumptuous, at times stunning cinematography, or in the unparalleled intensity of some of the confrontations – with tension building to almost intolerable levels – The Master is every bit an Anderson production, even if the subject-matter has necessitated a perhaps less overtly direct approach to his storytelling. There’s more than a hint of Malick (Thin Red Line, Tree of Life, New World) in his style, although you shouldn’t be fooled: Anderson has clear purpose behind his unabashed ambiguity; it is only in this opaque portrait of a cult movement that he can wield such a powerful political commentary.
Indeed the truth is that ostensibly vague tale is of Scientology in all but name, focussing not only on the minutiae of the movement – the processing techniques; the criminal intimidation of those who would speak out against the group; the unquestioning dedication required of the followers, even when faced with the changing tide and hypocrisy of its very founder himself; the unfounded ‘scientific’ assertions (that the Earth is indeed trillions of years old) and the belief that you can tap into past lives which transcend time and space – but also on the more controversial rumours surrounding ‘the Church’ itself, like the fact that it is alleged that its founder, Hubbard, made the whole thing up as a largely commercial enterprise (one can’t forget the pointed fact that he was a sci-fi author first and foremost, especially when dipping into the more outlandish cosmology that he crafted as the foundation behind the movement).
It also addresses the fact that ‘the Master’ was himself an unquestionably enigmatic individual, with true power, presence and palpable charisma; an energy which drew others to be around him; and ideas which, whilst often ridiculous, still made some individuals want to know more. As with anything in life that requires a little blind faith and intangible ‘belief’, the Master’s abilities to make even the slightest connection with his subjects often leads to their utter dedication to whatever else he has to say (in much the same way that reading your horoscope and finding a single element to be applicable to your current state can often fool you into believing that the whole thing is unnervingly insightful).
There’s a hypnotic intensity to the ‘processing’ (Scientology refers to this technique as auditing) which is so intense and involving that, by the end of it, the victim will likely find it almost impossible to recall the point and purpose in the first place; so disturbing is the whole procedure that it escapes criticism for its scientific pointlessness.
Whilst some viewers may struggle with the vague, opaque portrait of the seemingly fictional cult, that’s the beauty of Anderson’s craft, as it is this very pointlessness that is his core point. It offers no answers because there are no answers; indeed there may never have been any answers in the first place, just questions which draw you in under the false pretence that you will discover some true meaning further down the line.
Even if you are disappointed with this more opaque filmmaking approach, there’s no question that the power of the two lead performances – and, indeed, many of the stellar supporting contributions – will still leave a distinct impression upon you. Although Philip Seymour Hoffman (Ides of March, Moneyball) is expectedly perfect as the mysterious ‘Master’, delivering a committed portrayal of this obsessive individual, who treats questions with explosive rhetoric, and who rules over his followers with both the grandfatherly charm and the tyrannical fist of a mafia Godfather, it’s actually Joaquin Phoenix’s dedicated performance as Freddie Quell that deserves the greatest praise.
Whatever Phoenix (We Own The Night) was attempting with his recent faux reality shenanigans for the disastrously misguided I’m Still Here, he has more than redeemed himself with his performance here, earning a much-deserved Best Actor nod in the process. Simply becoming Freddie Quell, Phoenix blends elements of everyone from Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man to Peter Falk’s Columbo, allowed to improvise this characterisation and, in the process, crafting a curiously twitchy, squinting, hunch-backed persona who is both a puerile teenage boy in mentality and almost a decrepit old man in physicality. It is always impressive when an actor transcends the standard limitations of his art to become a character that he is playing, but Phoenix simply stuns with the swiftness with which he puts this into effect. Within minutes of him appearing on screen you are simply swept up by this curious, broken, hard-to-understand, almost impossible to like, character. It’s an acting masterclass.
Supporting them both we get the likes of Amy Adams (The Fighter) – on Lady MacBeth form as the curiously mercenary devil on the Master’s shoulder – and a suitably vulnerable Laura Dern (Jurassic Park, Blue Velvet) as one of the Master’s most dedicated followers; with Friday Night Lights veteran Jesse Plemons (Observe and Report, Paul) perfectly underplaying it as the Master’s son, who seemingly knows the truth behind the movement; and Ambyr Childers (All My Children) on sheep-clad-wolf-form, playing the Master’s mischievous daughter.
Adopting a different style to his trademark 2.4:1 format, Anderson regular collaborator Robert Elswit (who produced the stunning panoramic vista shot for There Will Be Blood) was unavailable for DOP duties and so he teamed up with Coppola’s latest cinematographer, Mihai Maliamare Jr. Shooting the film almost entirely in 65mm – the first mainstream movie shot in the format since Branagh’s 1996 adaptation of Hamlet – the image was somewhat disappointingly cropped from 2.2:1 to 1.85:1 in order to match up to the 35mm footage also used. However, whilst the end result may take a little getting used to – particularly for those used to the wider framing of Elswit’s photography – eventually you will likely appreciate the fact that it works extremely well in reflecting the intensity and claustrophobia of the movie.
Thankfully his collaborating composer on There Will Be Blood, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, was available to return for duties on this film and produces a very different, but just as potent, brooding accompaniment, that plays to the whimsy of the opaque tale whilst still accentuating its intensity during the more powerful sequences. Anderson’s craft as a director is refined enough, but partnered up with such a superb filmmaking crew, the end result is even more impressive.
The Master is worth watching for the performances and perfected filmmaking craft alone, even if you don’t fully warm to the subtly scathing critique on that particular cult. However, with any luck, it will appeal to a wider audience of viewers intrigued by the serious dramatic weight that only filmmakers like Anderson truly dedicate themselves to, and to those who appreciate the fact that sometimes a less pointed approach can work much more effectively when it comes to striking a blow against the more ludicrous ideas suggested by such purported movements as the ‘Church’ of Scientology.
His roundabout tale, fashioned from unused material from the original scripts to There Will Be Blood and World War II-era studies on hypnosis and post-traumatic-stress-disorder, distracts you with these early signs of the direction it is going in; a sleight of hand that enables him to pull off a masterful manoeuvre without anybody even raising an eyebrow. Certainly one has to admire any filmmaker that can publish such an unquestionably damning statement about such a powerful religious movement, only veiled so expertly in ambiguity that it seems as beyond reproach as even the very ‘Church’ itself believes itself to be.