And many false prophets will arise and lead
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.
1 John 4:1
The Master in director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard, the controversial founder of Scientology. However, as played so well by Phillip Seymor Hoffman Lancaster Dodd is a spellbinding parlor magician and raconteur, not the talented science fiction writer who started living out his own fantasies based on pseudo science that Hubbard was. (I was a reader of Astounding Science Fiction back in the Fifties, and so remember the controversy that arose over the then popular writer’s spurious claims about his Dianetics as being the key to mental and physical health.) Anderson’s film can be seen as a fascinating study of the symbiotic relationship between Master and Follower.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the Follower, apparently spent his time in the Navy during World War 2 learning to mix fluids from torpedoes with other liquids to produce powerful moonshine. As he is being released from duty psychologists tell him that the process of re-entering civilian life will be difficult. And so it is, Freddie drifting from job to job in California—department store photographer, migrant cabbage field worker. He literally flees from both jobs, the last one because his hooch poisoned one of his fellow workers. One night. While inebriated as usual, he sneaks aboard a yacht where a lavish party is in progress, and his life changes forever.
The party giver is Lancaster Dodd, and he plans to sail to the east coast after the wedding of his daughter the next day. He has great plans of spreading the philosophy of his cult, which he has named The Cause. When caught and brought before him Dodd sees something in Freddie, not only his ability to make intriguingly unique drinks (paint thinner is one of the ingredients!), but also a disturbed mind looking for something to latch onto. Dodd puts Freddie through a series of exercises he calls Processing, very similar to the practice of Scientology in which the patient is questioned psychologically so as to reveal and conquer past traumas that inhibit him. We learn of Freddie’s tragic family history and that he had walked away from Doris (Madisen Beaty) the girl whom he had loved in his home town.
Dodd’s entire family are a part of his entourage, with his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) managing the cult’s affairs and being its fiercest defender. Well maybe not quite, because when he signs on Freddie actually tracks down and beats up a man who had dared to argue at a meeting in a wealthy supporter’s home that Dodd’s claims to mental time travel and teachings about previous lives were the bogus ratings of a charlatan. (In one telling scene we learn that even Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons).
The series of events, involving clashes between the increasingly erratic Freddy and Dodd and Peggy, are stormy. In Philadelphia while teaching at the home of wealthy supporter Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern), Dodd is arrested for practicing medicine without a license (reflecting events in L. Ron Hubbard’s life). Freddie, trying to defend his mentor, is also arrested for assaulting an officer. Incarcerated side by side in jail they rant and rave against each other, but upon release become reconciled. But can such a tumultuous relationship last, especially with Freddie having no intention of keeping his promise to stop drinking?
This is not an easy film to follow at times, but it is well worth the effort to do so. Hoffman’s portrayal of a charismatic cult leader again proves that he is one of the finest actors in Hollywood. He is mesmerizing in the scene near the end when, as a part of his ultimatum to Freddie, he sings to him the song popular in the early Fifties “On a Slow Boat to China.” The choice of the song (presumably by director Anderson) is a masterful touch, because, as the song says, “all to myself alone,” is exactly what Dodd would like to do with Freddie so that he can mold him into the perfect, unthinking follower that he requires to keep his cult going.
The film is at times as disturbing as it is insightful, especially a dance scene in which the women are naked or bare-chested: is this real or part of the fantasies of the characters? The film’s R-rated contents, and subject matter as well, make it fit almost excusively by adult groups interested in exploring the mind of the True Believer and the Master who demands their total obedience.
1. At the beginning of the film while the Japanese Surrender ceremony is broadcast on the radio, what is Freddie doing? How is Freddie gifted so that later Lancaster Dodd is drawn to him? Do you think this is a very positive gift? (Except maybe if Freddie wanted to be a bartender.)
2. How is Freddie a good candidate for membership in The Cause? In other words, what kind of a person is likely to join and stay in a cult? How is Freddie a very damaged human being?
3. What do you see as Dodd’s gifts? That is, what attributes make for a cult leader? Extreme self-confidence; ability to communicate persuasively; good looks and public image; inventive mind; strong desire to help others?
4. Compare Dodd’s teachings and his Processing with that of Scientology. A great help can be found in the comprehensive Wikipedia article on Dianetics at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dianetics.
5. What do you make of the strange beach scene, repeated near the end of the film, in which Freddie has sex with the “woman” made of sand? What does this reveal about his inner life and values? And how is this reflected in what he does when he returns to Doris in his hometown? And what he does after he breaks with Dodd?
6 Do you think that either Master or Follower have grown or changed during the course of the film? What leads you to believe so? Is it for the good or the bad?
7. What do you think of his reaction to Doris’s mother telling him that her daughter is now happily married with children? How might this be a tiny ray of hope for his future?
8. Many times we see the swirling waters left in the wake of a shift: what do you make of this? Also, how well are the songs of the Fifties woven into the film, especially “Slow Boat to China” ?
9. How is Christianity sometimes turned into a cult? What are the demands of the latter in regard to our faculties of critical thinking and