Freddie snickers and farts. “Silly animal,” says Dodd with fond patience. Then something emotionally breaks in Freddie as well. He wants more sessions, more questions, until he begins to talk about a painful interlude with a teenaged girl he left behind years ago.
The action moves to a mansion in New York, where Dodd , backed by a wealthy patron and disciple (Laura Dern), continues his experiment. But Peggy is growing increasingly concerned about Freddie’s unhealthy influence on her husband. In the film’s most surreal scenes, an inebriated Dodd performs a musical number at a party, where the women guests suddenly appear naked. Is it one Freddie’s lewd hallucinations? Apparently not: In the next scene, Mary Sue takes her husband to task with a deft bit of sexual shaming.
Freddie, though animalistic as ever, has becomes Dodd’s true believer, ready to beat anyone who questions The Master’s dictums. When Dodd’s son Val breezily tells him, “He’s making all this up as he goes along,” Freddie flies into a rage, assaults some policemen and ends up in a jail cell.
In the film’s second half, The Master’s gears begin to grind – we’re locked into Freddie’s increasing frustration as he’s put through spirit-breaking exercises of walking from wall to wall with his eyes closed. Here’s the point where non-believers will say that Anderson has lost his way, and that the characters are locked in fixed orbit, unable to progress.
Unless, of course, disappointment, frustration and replication are what the film are about. Dodd frequently alludes to having known Freddie in a past life, suggesting that this power dynamic (the master and the servant, the huckster and the shill) is eternally recurrent, but in new forms. The arch-capitalist Daniel Plainview and huckster preacher Eli Sunday are here rolled into one for the hard-sell optimism of the post-war era: The prophet is all about profit.
Anderson, who once cast himself a autobiographical director, is now a consciously American one, building a legacy on a foundation of film history. His exploration of the convergence of faith and fraudulence evokes everything from Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man to the last Wall Street market crash. An overhead shot of the yacht cutting through the water, which serves as the signature image of the film, echoes with the final sentence of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
A short history of cult cinema
It’s a nice touch that the methodology of the cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie The Master is to ask his new initiates to answer a series of questions without blinking. The suggestion is that this technique will help the recruits to focus, but it seems more like a variation on the attention-fixation tricks favoured by stage mesmerizers: an exercise in vision staged with eyes wide shut.
With its central dynamic between stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, and pointed references to the life and times of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, The Master instantly joins the canon of movies about cults – a large and diverse sub-genre whose best entrants often inspire the same sort of slavish devotion in their fans as the influence peddlers whose adventures they describe.
In the last year, two acclaimed American indie films, Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sound of My Voice, have featured quasi-religious figureheads tending to their anxious flocks, and critics have invoked the likes of Elmer Gantry and A Face in the Crowd – enduring portraits of populist demagogues. But a better point of comparison for Anderson’s deeply weird drama might be The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), a cult movie that is also a “cult movie” – an underground classic that, by featuring a single man as its writer, director and star, is also in the same league as Citizen Kane (Orson Welles being a crucial point of reference for Hoffman’s performance in Anderson’s film).
Sinner is the work of Timothy Carey, a character actor whose collaborators over his career included Stanley Kubrick and Frank Zappa, and whose face showed up on the cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His performance as insurance-salesman-turned-rock-star-turned-self-described “God” Clarence Hilliard is as twitchy and unhinged as Phoenix’s, with the added benefit that Carey is playing master and apprentice in the same body. The film is about a man whose ability to convince others that they are en route to becoming “superhuman beings” is outstripped by his ability to entrance himself.
If The Master adroitly sidesteps most of the cliches of cult movies – its protagonist doesn’t have his spirit broken, not does he heroically resist – it still seems in thrall somehow to Carey’s demented anti-masterpiece, a movie you really can’t take your eyes off of.