After learning about New Religious Movements for my degree I have always been interested in Scientology (among other groups). The charismatic leader, the evolving dogma, the intense recruitment strategies and the secretive inner-narrative have in turn led to a fascinating movement – one in which we will be forever ignorant of unless you join the inner circle, something that I am not willing to do. The new P.T. Anderson film then is a thought experiment to what it might be like to join such an organization (much like Martha Marcy May Marlene explores what it must be like to leave…)
The plot of the film follows WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as he returns to America from the pacific and tries to find stability. He has discovered a unique skill in creating his own alcoholic drinks from household ingredients (prescription medicine, paint stripper etc.) and is forever running from his drunken misbehavior – until he meets the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on his party ship. His alchemy skills impress ‘the master’ and Freddie begins to slowly learn the ways of the people on the ship and begins to agree with The Cause, Dodd’s philosophical teachings. As they land in New York and form a tight-knit community, Dodd tries to help Freddie through his anger and alcoholism with his hypnotic ‘processing’ until they both get thrown in jail – Dodd for fraud and Freddie for disturbing the peace as his master gets arrested. After some persecution Dodd moves to England and sets up a school for his teachings and Freddie is given a final chance to fix himself up or leave forever.
Firstly, the similarities with Scientology are undeniable – shocking even. It was clear from the discussion around the film that it was loosely based on the phenomenon but there are so many direct links to the organization: the e-meters, the navy, the billion-year contracts, the processing, the discussion of past-lives and trillion year anxieties. I was amazed at how overtly the film was referencing Scientology and Dianetics. This is a brave film to make and as a person with a very close interest in L.Ron Hubbard and his merry men, I was impressed with the boldness of The Master.
Secondly, the performances in the three main roles (Phoenix, Hoffman and Amy Adams) are fascinating. Hoffman perfectly nails the enigmatic leader, and Adams is incredibly freaky as his loyal wife Peggy. I must admit that this film scared me in places that no horror film has done in years. The way in which both of these characters convince the people around them to follow their ideas and rituals reminded me of the infamous Stanley Milgram experiments where volunteers had to electrocute people in order to test their obedience. Two particular moments that stood out for me was the calm authority that Dodd shows as he is first seen in his cell as Freddie is freaking out, and the second is when Peggy is staring straight into the camera as she commands Freddie to mentally change the colour of her eyes as she is staring at him.
The fact that Freddie has left the war and found a job as a portrait photographer has an interesting resonance with his fate thereafter. He at first has to capture other people’s images when they are at their most pristine and insincere, then later on he is made to take pictures of ‘his master’ – at this point I thought he could have had a profound moment when he realized that it was all a façade, but instead he tries his hardest to protect the image and continue the myth.
The soundtrack of the film is very cool, as you would expect from P.T. Anderson, but there is one particular choice that I thought was very interesting. Early in the film we hear the song ‘Get thee behind me Satan’, which stuck with me throughout the whole narrative. By the end I couldn’t help but wonder whether this referred to Freddie’s alcoholism, his time in the war, or his time spent with Lancaster Dodd.