I managed to convince half a dozen friends to see The Master with me over the weekend. I knew it was reviewing well, it was a Paul Thomas Anderson film, and it apparently included some kind of critique of Scientology, so I decided I wanted to see it. I also avoided trailers and previews to try to go in with as few expectations as possible - though, considering I ended up bringing friends with the promise of ‘this movie is supposed to be great,’ perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea.
The Master follows Freddie Quell, a disturbed alcoholic war veteran, who meets up with an eccentric gentleman, Lancaster Dodd, with more than a passing resemblance to L Ron Hubbard. The two strike up a close friendship as they travel around the United States with several dozen followers, devoted to the gentleman’s cause. The Master, as they call him, uses seemingly silly exercises like repeating one’s name to provide information on past lives. The methods used, combined with references to alien invaders, an equivalent of ‘suppressive person’, and government trouble made me wonder if the film wasn’t trying to be something like Citizen Kane, a not-so-subtle critique of a real person (or idea) using a fictional narrative.
Scientology allegories aside, I enjoyed the film’s discussion of mental illness. I wasn’t ever quite sure whether Quell’s behaviour was due to his alcoholism or his mental illness, and his accepted and recognized troubles contrasted well with Dodd’s more subtle craziness, clear to the audience but few of his followers. Just as Quell’s illness was probably brought on by his experiences in war, I wondered if The Master was intentionally pulling the wool over the eyes of his constituents, or if he’d convinced even himself so well that he was now as sick as Quell. I like the implication that it took a crazy man to realise The Cause was all bullshit, too.
The Master is one of those films that shows rather than tells, and even what it shows is far from explicit. Viewers are left to make their own conclusions and connections, and at least for my friends and me we were left confused and I think a little disappointed, but after meeting up the next day for further discussion opinions had changed for the better. I like movies that leave me thinking about it days later, and while the ambiguous and perhaps overly-subtle nature of the film would mean I’d hesitate to recommend the movie to most people, The Master definitely provides food for thought.