‘The Master’ Explores Extremes of Human Behavior

“You’re a very bad man!” says “The Wizard of Oz’s” Dorothy Gale, after she discovers that the Wizard is actually an old carny flimflam artist.

“Oh, no,” he replies. “I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

Dorothy’s Oz adventure interprets as a fantastic reworking of puberty’s rite of passage. The arc of adolescence is completed when one has transitioned from the necessary dependency of childhood into the dawning autonomy of young adulthood. Dorothy believes she needs an omnipotent power to get back home – in psychoanalytic terms, to construct the foundations of a coherent adult identity.

The Wizard explains that she’s owned the heart, brains, and courage to accomplish this task all along. (By the same token, her avatars – Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion – already possess the respective capability each imagines he lacks.) To realize her latent strengths, she must undertake the hazardous, exciting journey down puberty’s Yellow Brick Road.

We all need our Wizards, first for sheer survival as infants, later to thrive as children. Freud wrote tellingly about the “magnificence” with which the child endows his parents. During adolescence, these “Wizards” must inevitably be cut down to size, as we recognize – often painfully – that the mightiness of parents and other adults is illusory. They are, after all, ordinary, flawed mortals.

But what if the trajectory of adolescent development miscarries? Then the adult may seek to redress unresolved yearnings for childhood’s comforting dependency through a symbolic substitute – lover, spouse, mentor, even a cause – unconsciously glorified to redeem the parents’ “lost” magnificence. Psychoanalysts infer various factors that might predispose one to evoke this magical aggrandizement: innate constitutional difficulties, prolonged debilitating childhood illnesses, unfortunate cultural circumstances, a pathologic parent-child symbiosis.

Searching after an omnipotent parental surrogate as a consequence of miscarried adolescence may be a mildly neurotic affliction – resolved through emotional growth later in life, sometimes through therapy. But those severely predisposed to seek and never find a lavishly idealized Other may become perpetual unmoored drifters – or become consumed in the quest for psychic integration through the agency of the exalted Other, or a succession of Others, as idols fail and fall. Clinical work with such a pilgrim reveals that his or her fantasied aim is to achieve power by paradoxically relinquishing it to a proxy.

Woe betide the seeker who finds someone who imagines he possesses such power! This dire dynamic lies at the core of cults – and of Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambitious, unsatisfying new film, “The Master.” Written and directed by Anderson, “The Master” is set in postwar 1950s’ America. Its drifter/pilgrim is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a broken survivor of the Pacific theater’s bloody beaches. There are no scenes of actual combat. Quell’s participation in the horrific carnage of that war is disclosed through a short, strong establishing close-up: His eyes are seen peeping fearfully through the gate of a landing craft about to disembark troops into battle.

Jump cut to Quell on an atoll beach, miming intercourse with a female sculpted from sand while fellow sailors cheer him on, then masturbating furiously into the ocean waves, then returning to the sand woman alone, to lay his head on “her” breast with eerie tenderness.

There’s something unhinged about Quell from the start. Whether achieved through lighting, make up, or sheer acting art, Phoenix’s face often resembles the dysmorphic visage of a leering gargoyle. His speech is restricted; his voice oddly strangled, forced through clenched teeth. His movements are odd, dystonic. His limbs are all right angles; his arms akimbo; his walk a disjointed shamble. Yet, he can be oddly attractive. He projects a brutal sensuality that easily attracts women.

Quell is hospitalized for posttraumatic stress disorder. His signs and symptoms suggest multiple serious comorbidities. His punctuate hallucinations, unsocialized and intermittently explosive antisocial behavior, and schizoid, marginal lifestyle probably existed before the war. As did his gross double-diagnosis alcoholism. Phoenix gives one of the most accurate depictions of the disorder ever lensed. The immensity of his thirst for booze from any source is frightening. He creates and imbibes toxic concoctions from anything available: cleaning fluid, Lysol, photo-developing solution.


Of his past, we know little: a mother psychiatrically hospitalized for years; paternal alcoholism and desertion; a tentative relationship before the war with a teenage girl, who he briefly visits after his discharge and flees as from the plague. Again, in a series of jump-cut sequences, he descends the social ladder, unable to hold the most menial jobs. Finally, in the abyss of end-stage alcoholism, he stumbles through a decrepit waterfront, tumbles over the rail onto a brightly lit yacht, and passes out.

A wealthy patron has lent the yacht to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), charismatic Master of a cult called “The Cause,” for a celebration of his daughter’s wedding. Dodd professes to be “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher.” His character is loosely based on the young L. Ron Hubbard; his theories are likewise distant relatives of Scientology’s early praxis.

Dodd’s agenda for “getting clear” involves a bizarre meld of hypnotic regression, gestalt, and group-therapy techniques. One is “guided’ through millennia of past lives, so as to shed mental and physical disorders (even leukemia) along the way, and reach a state of godlike perfection. Acolytes are blissfully unaware that the Master’s ever mutating master plan appears (to this clinician) driven by hypomanic mood swings.

The film reveals virtually nothing of Dodd’s background. He is presented, as it were, out of nothing, a man of air. He’s handsome, if a bit porky; dresses impeccably; and moves with suave, almost effeminate grace. He’s a witty, captivating speaker, with his hands beautifully sculpting the rise and fall of his nuanced phrases. His enormous charm entrances one into belief, no matter how dubious the premises.

Dodd would seem the reverse of Quell’s debased medal. But there’s a dark affinity between the two. Their bond is sealed over alcohol. Introducing himself, Dodd says he’s sampled Quell’s latest brew – it stunned him literally and figuratively. Immediately diagnosing Quell a dissembling rogue, he’s also addressing his own wild side – which one speculates is sublimated through his outré doctrines.

A whiff of brimstone rises from Dodd’s subsequent inebriated “clearing” session with Quell. When he intently asks whether Quell ever committed incest – he had been a victim – one somehow glimpses Dodd’s wanton, possibly debauched sexuality (further insinuated by a grotesque party in which the clad Dodd cavorts among nude female devotees).

“The Master” centers on the increasingly ambivalent, symbiotically charged relationship between Dodd and Quell. In this sinister saraband, Dodd, ever the consummate actor, alternately plays solicitous guru-cum-therapist to Quell’s traumatized psyche, and angry Prospero to Quell’s soused, defiant Caliban. Dodd uses every technique in his cracked repertoire to “clear” Quell – except for past-life regression. It seems the wicked, self-deceitful Quell must first acknowledge who he is to Dodd before he can fathom who he ever was.


Individual sessions consist of Quell ceaselessly repeating his name and naming his transgressions to Dodd. Before an assembly of the faithful, Dodd makes Quell shuttle back and forth for hours between touching a wall and window, relating his sensations in minute detail. It’s moot whether this is meant to ground Quell in a Zen-like recognition of “suchness” or merely torture him into submission.

At length, Quell does become Dodd’s disciple. But his acceptance of the Cause is ever precarious, punctuated by spectacular lapses into drink, fornication, and violence. He possesses no understanding of Dodd’s arcane philosophy but is profoundly solaced by the Master’s stringent devotion. It’s not Dodd’s words, but his tune that promises the end of Quell’s inarticulate suffering.

Dodd meets Quell when the latter’s life has sunk into extremely dark depths, and the former’s fortunes are on the rise: Dodd has begun to attract the affluent people who are perennially drawn to whatever esoteric practice is in fashion – mesmerism, theosophy, Bikram Yoga. After Quell joins Dodd, the Cause runs out of steam and support over an unspecified time. (Once more, jump cutting between sequences is Anderson’s signature means of narrating Dodd’s decline and fall, as it was in documenting Quell’s deterioration.)

Dodd’s methods and integrity come under increasing fire. He’s sued for misuse of a patron’s funds. At a threadbare Florida “congress” of the movement, now much reduced, Dodd’s long-expected second book, supposedly even more transformative than the first, is revealed as fatuous blather.

Paranoid insinuations were already being made about “outsiders” invading the movement to destroy it, well before Quell joined up. Dodd’s zealot wife (Amy Adams) is now thoroughly convinced that Quell has been a spy of some secret agency all along and demands his expulsion. Dodd will have none of it. He insists that saving Quell is vital to the Cause’s mission: If this damaged miscreant can be rescued from “unclarity,” anyone can. It’s therefore not Quell who has failed the Cause, but vice versa.

Quell’s anarchic sociopathy has in fact infected Dodd’s project, by seducing Dodd into deeper corruption. Whenever Dodd is disparaged, Quell savagely attacks the critic, causing the movement even greater problems. Dodd may remonstrate that he eschews violence, but one intuits Quell is acting out Dodd’s disavowed violent proclivities. I’ve frequently encountered this “superego lacuna” in the parent of a delinquent adolescent.


Quell finally flees the Cause and resumes his perpetual wandering to the ends of despair. His desolation escalates when he finds the young woman he idealized, as he would later elevate Dodd, has long since married. After several months – or years – Dodd summons Quell to England, promising him a definitive “cure.” Quell finds him flourishing, dapper as ever, reinvented as the headmaster of a progressive school. (Charismatic scoundrels like Lancaster Dodd frequently manage to recover their stride.) His cure for Quell turns out to be a scam infinitely worse than the disease.

For Dodd has bid his return only to affirm his twisted need for Quell, wants him forever near or gone on pain of death should he attempt to come back. Having passed a psychological death sentence on Quell, he renders more blatant the latent homoeroticism always underpinning their relationship, with a lascivious crooning of: “I want to get you/On a slow boat to China …” It’s arguably the picture’s best and most certainly its weirdest moment.

Quell flees Dodd, and “The Master” comes full circle with the film’s initial shot of his face pressed against the sand woman’s breast. The analyst conceives this as Quell’s return to the plenitude of the maternal breast, which we have seen embodied in his ambivalent wedding to the Master’s illusory “magnificence.”

I’ve probed “The Master’s” intricate dynamics, but psychological complexity does not guarantee artistic potency. Paul Thomas Anderson’s impressive life’s work – such as “Hard Eight” (1996), “Boogie Nights” (1997), ”Magnolia” (1999) – often examines a problematic male mentor/mentee relationship. His last picture, the magisterial “There Will Be Blood,” (2007) comprises the most devastating exploration of this theme. Unfortunately, despite considerable advance buzz and critical acclaim, “The Master” is a cold turkey, a very strange – and estranging – bird, indeed.

For, unlike “There Will Be Blood” and Anderson’s other pictures, no one in “The Master” ever truly engages the heart. Phoenix and Hoffman are remarkable as Quell and Dodd; in fact, too remarkable, eclipsing every other character. Each actor’s eye seems squarely focused on an Oscar to the detriment of Anderson’s customarily excellent ensemble work.

There’s nothing about cult and cult membership one hasn’t seen far better described (for example, the unfortunately neglected “Ticket to Heaven” [1981]). What’s specific about “The Master” is its extraordinarily tedious induction of Quell’s devilish discipleship. Under the lash of Dodd’s relentless interrogation – whatsyournamewhatsyournamewhatsyourname – Quell’s interminable shuffling between window and wall – one eventually feels ground down and crushed like Quell. “The Master,” in effect, becomes what it beholds. On leaving the theater, I felt released, as though I myself had been liberated from a cult, gratefully deprogrammed to savor the cool autumn air.

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