One of the oddest entries into the Odd Couple subgenre, 2012's The Master hearkens back to the beginnings of modern American cults, shortly after WWII. Joaquin Phoenix plays the loose half of the couple, a sailor, Freddie Quell, suffering from battle fatigue and chronically low self esteem whose idea of a good time is to go on a bender and get laid. The tight half is portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the self styled guru, Lancaster Dodd, who more and more comes to believe his own press and keeps things marginally together by surrounding himself with the faithful. Dodd decries the animal within man and professes to offer the way back to higher perfection.
1945—1950 is something of a blur for Freddie, who manages to botch everything he touches, remaining in an alcohol induced fog, often home brewed. Those misspent years comprise the first twenty minutes or so of the film. The only point of coherence is a recurring image of blue water churning behind a boat—always different boats, always the same water. Freddie consistently resorts to primal fight-or-flight tactics, sooner rather than later, when things start to go south, as they inevitably do around both men. Lancaster, or The Master as he is called by his fawning faithful, is introduced when Freddie—on the lam from his fellow itinerant cabbage pickers after poisoning one of them with his home brew—stows away on Dodd's pleasure boat, where he soon becomes a reluctant disciple and member of the inner (family) circle which includes Amy Adams as Dodd's staunchly dependable right hand.
As good as Phoenix and Hoffman are, Adams is better, perhaps because her role is understated and theirs are both larger than life. The scene where she, bulging with their next unborn child, pleasures Dodd in the bathroom sink while emphatically reciting the current doctrine in his ear, then wipes her hand on a towel and goes to bed is the funniest of the film. Needless to say, the frequent jarring humor is quite black. And one is never completely sure whether Mrs. Dodd is a true believer or if she's just along for the ride, hoping to turn a tidy profit on the way. She sees Freddie as a threat to the credibility of the cause, and is forever attempting to drive a wedge between the two men by decrying Freddie to her husband.
The character of Lancaster is possibly an amalgam of two people, L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics (and later Scientology) and Robert DeGrimston, nee Moor, who along with his wife, founded The Process a decade later. Both men were philosophizing megalomaniacs of questionable stability, and both were bolstered by armies of the faithful who would, as part of their training, accost pedestrians in public flogging free lectures. While the time arc, the ex-wives and the techniques favor the former by a decade, the name of the technique, the British tie-in and the role of the wife favors the latter (who was, coincidently, a refugee from the Church of Scientology and near the top of Hubbard's always burgeoning poop list.)
The film, like Freddie, maintains a constant state of flux. There are Freddie's hedonistic coping mechanisms which get him and those around him into all sorts of trouble. There are the self help techniques, that Jessie Plemons as Val Dodd, The Master's son, decries asking Freddie "can't you see he's making it up as he goes along?" The problem is they seem to work, at the very least make people aware of themselves and their surroundings while strengthening their self confidence, even if the accompanying philosophy is clearly unadulterated grade-A claptrap. And there is the fatal flaw in the relationship between the two men. Dodd is, in fact, Quell's only friend, and does, along with the reluctant missus, actually help deliver him from his pit of incoherent self loathing. But Dodd is also blinded by his own swelling ego, more and more so as his popularity grows along with his forever changing philosophy—changing, one is expected to deduce, to widen its appeal. He cannot see Freddie beyond his own glaring needs—relegates his two fisted disciple to pet project status.
The film is full of great images, Dodd armed to the teeth with Quell behind him like a beast of burden in the desert; Dodd making up techniques playing like a schoolboy at recess; Dodd singing and dancing, while convincing the women members of his entourage to disrobe at the gathering; various members of the uber faithful (including Laura Dern in a great little role) growing disillusioned when Dodd suddenly changes the rules of the game; Freddie on the beach with the sand woman; Freddie passed out drunk on a date… The ending is the second biggest laugh, when Freddie does indeed come to understand the value of Dodd's teachings and sets about applying his hard earned lessons within the context of his reawakened dissolute lifestyle.
Well cast, well acted, well timed, and edited, the film is a delight for those who like their humor dark and their drama just a bit off the wall. It is a must for anyone who has any manner of passing acquaintance with a cult or two, unless, of course, they have been irreparably scarred by their experience. (And then again, some cults are quite small, remain unnamed, their charming and/or overbearing perpetrators simply dominating family gatherings or the workplace. Who knows, maybe you're already in at least one cult and don't even realize it.)
© Paul L. Bates 2012