The Master was called a movie about Scientology, but it’s about so much more
Paul Thomas Anderson’s study of the perfect victim is also a reminder that anyone can fall pray.
Cult stories are like catnip for viewers, whether it’s the haunting portrayal of the Manson family in Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood or the horrific cults portrayed in Ari Aster’s movies Hereditary and Midsommar. But the genre usually focuses on the slow derangement of ensnared victims instead of what falling into a cult often feels like: a euphoric state of belonging. A 2012 movie streaming on HBO Max completely flipped that script.
The Master is arguably Paul Thomas Anderson’s most interesting work, which is intriguing because it’s often his least discussed today. Unlike There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights, there’s not much panache. It’s the story of World War II vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a department store photographer who finds himself at rock bottom when he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a group known as The Cause.
While Hoffman was, fittingly, an influential member of production (it was his idea to focus the script on Freddie instead of Lancaster), it’s Phoenix who gave the most captivating performance. The Master was his first role after his mockumentary/performance art piece I’m Still Here, but a return to form isn’t the only reason this performance is special. Phoenix was raised in a cult himself, the abusive Children of God, and it’s not hard to see that influence at work here.
Like many cult acolytes, Freddie’s path in The Cause is deeply personal. Based roughly on the history of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard — an influence that overshadowed the film’s release and produced thematic misunderstandings — The Master shows how Quell’s vulnerability is not just what makes Dodd so easily take on a mentor role, but how people, especially those who are struggling in life, crave someone in a position of authority.
The Master is often described as a character study, but it’s hard to see which character is meant by that statement. Yes, the film is focused on Freddie, but he himself is so fascinated by Dodd’s persona that he can’t help but focus on his leader. It’s a career-best performance for Hoffman, and in Phoenix you can see both the cult-born child he was and the reputation for intense acting his later works would develop.
The supporting cast is also full of heavy hitters. Disney princess and Oscar mainstay Amy Adams plays Lancaster’s wife, Peggy, and Jesse Plemons finally gets to cash in on his resemblance to Hoffman as Lancaster’s cynical son, Val.
In one of the film’s final scenes, Dodd tells Quell, “If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.” It’s a harsh reminder that cults form because people crave guidance, and can find comfort in someone telling them what to do. Good leadership is a rare quality, but it’s a necessity. Just as people have a need for spiritual fulfillment, they often need spiritual guidance.
The Master is a powerful case study on how New Age spirituality came to prominence in the post-war era, how that war affected those who fought in it, and the universal search for meaning that could lead people to groups they don’t realize are harmful until it’s too late. It’s easy to dismiss people who stumble into cults as stupid, or naive, or weak. Anderson, Hoffman, and Phoenix offered a reminder that anyone is a couple bad breaks away from falling victim.
The Master is streaming on HBO Max.