"The Master": A Film About Scientology, or All Religion?

As a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson's other films (read our analysis of his work here), I felt that I had somehow dropped the ball when I left his latest film feeling befuddled and disappointed. Many critics have expressed a similar sentiment, leading me to conclude that it might have been Anderson who dropped the ball on this one. 

I was hooked when I saw the trailer, and read that the story revolved around a religious huckster called Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) peddling his inscrutable "Cause" to a crazy-looking drifter called Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). The plot thickened when I read that this new film was largely inspired by (but not explicitly based on) the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard.

Anderson has down-played the Scientology connection for the purpose of artistic breadth, even though the auteur personally screened the film for his friend, Tom Cruise, and the film itself reveals a plethora of connections to Hubbard's life, Dianetics, auditing, etc.

Still, Anderson is right - the film isn't really about Scientology. But is it about religion itself? Or is it "about" anything at all?

Evasiveness and mysteriousness in art is an obvious benefit, so long as it serves some goal. The perfect film strikes a balance between coyness and communication; it dips the audience in its water and lets them swim for themselves, but also doesn't leave them to founder.

A movie that's all message and no mystery is doomed to fail; it hauls the audience on the boat and robs them of all the work and fun of learning to swim through the water themselves. But the equal and opposite error is a film that is all smoke and confusion, with no core idea to communicate; it tosses the audience overboard with nothing to hang on to.

The Master, unfortunately, is closer to the latter - and I agree wholeheartedly with Roger Ebert when he says that this film "is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air. It has rich material and isn't clear what it thinks about it."

Does it have fantastic cinematography, scoring, and character acting? Yes, yes, and yes again. But it falls short of communicating some overarching truth, or at least communicating it clearly enough.

Still, The Master does contain several palatable nuggets that - for any person interested in the intersection of spirituality and the arts - won't go unnoticed or unappreciated.

In particular, there is the unflattering portrayal of "The Cause," which many are taking to be a sort of excoriation of all organized religion. Jonathan Kim, writing in the Huffington Post, argues that The Master is a "freaking masterpiece...not an exposé of Scientology so much as it is about the yearning we all have to find meaning and comfort...be it a family, an organization, or a belief system promising the key to happiness." On a not-so-unrelated "personal note," Kim adds: "I don't see Scientology as being better, worse, or crazier than so-called established religions, where the big difference to me is that Scientology puts its pseudo-science ahead of its belief in magic wish-granting sky monsters, instead of the other way around."

Similarly, Think Progress critic Alyssa Rosenberg writes that The Master is about "about worship, sacrament, and what we take from belief," and draws parallels between Freddie's liquor concoctions and the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist.

So is Anderson criticizing organized religion, or faith in general?

Certain scenes seem to give credence to this reading, especially considering Anderson's treatment of Christianity in There Will Be Blood (which may be his best film to date). Again, he links religion with a grandiose narcissist who woos and controls his followers with infallible mystical visions, meaningless rituals and repetitions, and explosive outbursts of anger when challenged. Of course, these are some of the stock critiques of organized religion - that it is uncritical, ritualistic, and authoritative.

So what makes the "quackery" of "The Cause" different from any other religion; say, institutional Christianity? Was Leo Pfeffer right when he said, "if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps 'the' religion; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult"?

The key to answering this question is objective, external tests. In "The Cause," we see typical traits of cult behavior outlined by sociologists: text-book coercive persuasion, threats of harm for questioning the leader or abandoning the mission, and other forms of psychological manipulation. Dodd doesn't persuade, but pressures; he doesn't propose doctrines, but imposes them. This deviation from ethical norms and radical restriction on the freedoms of followers are obvious red flags.

But more pointedly - and perhaps more tragically - "The Cause" fails in theory. Dodd's manipulations (fueled in part by his creepy wife, played by Amy Adams) are a means of cooking the books, of hiding an underlying metaphysical bankruptcy. Dodd isn't concerned with cross-checking his revelations with reason, or considering natural science, history, and philosophy, because they represent a threat to his authority. In this way, "The Cause" does illustrate a universal danger - but it is not faith qua faith. Instead, it's faith cut off from reason, doomed to wither into superstition or hubris.

For example, a skeptic embarrasses Dodd at a dinner party by calling him out on some teachings of "The Cause" which are contradicted by facts of science. How can Dodd address trillions-years old events when the earth is only 4 billion years old? the man asks, and is promptly called a "pig [expletive]" in response.

Dodd is not only unscientific, but inhuman - or at least, inattentive to what humans evidently are. "The Cause" exalts man's spiritual, angelic nature, thereby denigrating or even denying the physical. "Man is not an animal," Dodd says in a chanted recording. "We are not a part of the animal kingdom." (This also is a parallel to Scientology - the organization's website says that "Scientology addresses the spirit - not the body or mind...Man is an immortal spiritual being...Scientology further holds Man to be basically good.")

Enter Freddie Quell.

Quell, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, is the prototype of the animalistic man. He is aggressive, irrational, impulsive, lascivious, and selfish; everything is about pleasure and survival - the next drink, the next meal, the next woman - whatever he wants in that particular moment.

Maybe the greatest aspect of The Master is the relationship between Dodd and Quell - and it stems, I think, from Dodd's desire to "quell Quell"; to turn him into a docile, "angelic" servant of "The Cause." But from start to finish, Quell is a brute, and Dodd's practices and teachings seem to bounce right off of him to no avail, despite their bizarre, magnetic friendship.

In one striking scene, when both men are imprisoned in side-by-side cells, an enraged Quell bangs his head against the bunk, kicks the toilet off the wall, and shouts at the top of his lungs. Dodd's response - attributing the behavior to some billions-of-years-ago event that affected Quell's soul - evoked laughter from the audience in the theater. Why? Not because it's a different or "strange" belief, but because it feels ridiculously remote from the very real problems afflicting this character. It's a cop-out that really doesn't explain anything.

But toward the end of the film, Dodd delivers a powerhouse line. "If you figure out a way to live without a master - any master - be sure to let the rest of us know. For you would be the first in the history of the world." Here, he is reciting a profound truth: that human beings are spiritual creatures who long to surrender themselves to some higher spiritual reality. In the words of one recent Bob Dylan song, "man can't live by bread alone"; and to quote an older one, we "gotta serve somebody." We are not merely animals - and that spiritual need is misdirected or neglected at our own peril.

Blaise Pascal summed up man's nature in this way:

"It is dangerous to make man see too clearly his equality with the brutes without showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to make him see his greatness too clearly, apart from his vileness. It is still more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very advantageous to show him both. Man must not think that he is on a level either with the brutes or with the angels, nor must he be ignorant of both sides of his nature; but he must know both."

We are both brute animal and noble spirit, both great and fallen; kings without crowns - a reality that comports with both reason and experience.

If The Master is "about" anything, it's not only about what separates cults from religions, but also what separates naivete from the fruits of faith. At the center of it all are two men who go to extremes - one refusing to heed anything but his own impulses, another refusing to heed anything but his own insights.

Unfortunately, Anderson has also gone to an extreme; whatever it is he wants us to see beyond that was clear as mud to me, at least on a first viewing. Too many long, strange, aimless scenes distract from these more powerful bits and pieces - and the result is that The Master is no masterpiece.

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