For a movie by an acclaimed director featuring a highly talented cast of A-list actors with a much-hyped, juicily controversial storyline, "The Master" has performed rather less than masterfully at the box office. Perhaps all of those (mostly positive) critical reviews describing the film as "challenging" and "difficult" are what's to blame for people generally staying away in droves. After all, most moviegoers want to be entertained, not blasted with discomfiting imagery or forced to unpack puzzling and discombobulating narratives. They want, in short, not to be required to think too much.
Then again, maybe the Hollywood Scientology mafia have issued a kind of fatwa against the film-- which is clearly based on L.R. Hubbard's early career as a kooky cult leader-- and have ordered that it be utterly thwarted and driven into obscurity. One never knows. But whatever the reason, it's a shame, because The Master is a profoundly well-made movie which deserves to be seen, particularly by those who (like many on the "alternative right") keenly feel the debilitating absence of once widely-held spiritual values and mourn the erosion of faith in our wretchedly vulgar and morally degenerate post-modern age.
The film charts the simultaneously parallel and perpendicular courses of the life-tragectories of two seemingly very different men, both of whose souls are, literally and metaphorically, "at sea."
The film's "Everyman" figure is a sailor named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix)... and if Freddie is indeed "everyman," then God help us all! Dissolute, debauched, depraved, and dim-witted, with an addiction to cheap sex and queasy alcoholic concoctions and afflicted with a frighteningly volatile temper, Freddie seems a pure animal, albeit a desperately unhappy one; his Cro-Magnon brow always seems to be furrowed in brute frustration, and his posture is perpetually stooped, as if he were weighed down by a crushing burden he can't even begin to understand.
We first meet our unlikely hero, a U.S. Navy man, at the literal start of what is now known as "the post-war era": the immediate end of World War II. After having endured what must have been an especially hellish stint in the Pacific theater fighting the Japanese in the waning months of the conflict, Freddie humanity appears largely to have been shredded and scrapped. In a memorable scene, we witness him and his comrades roaming the beach of some beautiful South Sea isle in a crazed, giggly stupor; under a blazing tropical sun, next to the brilliant azure ocean, Freddie builds an intricate sand sculpture of a naked woman, complete with enormous breasts and pointy nipples, which he avidly dry-humps with precarious abandon for an extended period of time, an act that his shipmates, jaded as they are, seem to find a bit disturbing.
After this inasupicious start, we see Freddie's failed attempts to adjust to civilian life. He cavorts lecherously with a whore in a photography darkroom, then picks a drunken fight with a stranger in a department store, then accidentally poisons an elderly migrant worker by making the man drink one of his noxious homemade concoctions. Fleeing from the consequences of this last transgression, Freddie somehow ends up back at sea again, on a yacht captianed by Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a pompously rotund and insufferably mustacioed would-be self-help guru. In introducing himself to Freddie, Dodd announces of himself, "I am many things... I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, just like you."
For all of his unctuous rhetoric, and for all of the dubious trappings of the belief system he's constructed (no systematic set of doctrines is ever revealed, but belief in reincarnation seems central, as well the attempted attainment of "perfection" through hyponosis and various bizarre and at times violently confrontational role-playing exercises), Dodd nevertheless appears to have built a considerable following among certain sectors of the wealthy, liberal, and educated classes-- those who feel they have "outgrown" the devout Christianity of their forefathers, but who still want answers to the vexing questions which invariably attend human existence, so long as these answers don't interfere too much with their modern values and life-choices. Those who adopt Dodd as disciple are, in short, the same breed of people who today we hear uttering glib, facile mantras like "I'm spiritual, but not religious," and who plaster their cars with smug and smarmy "My karma ran over your dogma" bumper stickers, all the while claiming to shun "judgmental" attitudes.
Dodd, as played by Hoffman, seems in large part aware of the essential shallowness of his pre-New Age adherents; he secretly loathes them, one gathers, for being so easy to exploit. Freddie, however, is altogether different; he's a tough lout with a tortured soul, a dirt-poor "white trash" upbringing and a decidedly unglamorous family background: we learn that his father flew the coop, that his mother went insane, and that his aunt sexually abused him. Dodd takes an immediate liking to Freddie, though there is a condescension to his geniality-- to Dodd, a man like Freddie can only be looked upon as a "project" of sorts. Freddie, in turn, is drawn to Dodd for reasons not entirely clear to himself; he seems comforted by the older man's vaguely paternal presence, yet he also retains enough native horsesense to know that behind his dapper facade, Dodd is a fraud.
The two remain bonded by an odd loyalty. Dodd runs Freddie ragged, making him endure endless, exhausting psychological trials. He subjects the hapless ragamuffin to relentless insults, makes him answer a series of embarrassing questions without blinking, and has him run back and forth between the window on one side of a room and the wall on the other side for hours and hours on end. All of these exercises are meant to help to make Freddie more centered, focused, and mentally healthy, but instead, they only seem to addle the poor galoot all the more. Yet when all of Dodd's immediate family try to persuade him that Freddie is bad news and needs to be cut loose, Dodd refuses to give up on his pupil. Freddie, for his part, lashes out in rage against Dodd's enemies; he savagely beats one man who openly expresses skepticism in the cult leader's methods, and slaps around another who has the temerity to call his latest book "nonsense."
Eventually, however, the two men do separate. When this happens, it's hard for us to tell which one initiated the break-up and who was jilted. In this ambiguous scene, Dodd weirdly serenades Freddie with an a cappella version of "Slow Boat To China," a moment which provoked bewildered chuckles from the sparse audience members in attendance at my showing. Before this seemingly affectionate, yet also menacing rendition, Dodd speaks to the effect that a man must have a master-- none of us are truly "free agents"; we must bow before someone, or something-- we must live for something greater than ourselves, else we will perish.
This moment, bizarre as it is, nicely encapsulates what I take to be the central and enduring message of the movie. Like it or not, man is a spiritual animal: he does not live on bread alone. If the West is to be renewed, as most readers of this site ardently wish, then a regeneration of transcendent faith will be necessary.
We, like Freddie Quell, have descended into a dumb, sensually-overloaded, beast-like stupor; like Freddie, we are vaguely aware that we have gone astray, but we seem helpless to help ourselves. Our only hope is to seek out our proper Master, and once again to be ruled by him.