When a Man Loves a Cult
Contrary to popular belief, “The Master” isn’t about Tiberious’ Life at the Manse
Let’s be clear about one thing: I like surreal films, partially because I always prefer to augment my experience by taking in some kind of alternative chemical. If a film is not improved by the addition of LSD, then it should not be made for human consumption.
Before going to the theater to enjoy The Master I knew it would be necessary to avoid any depressants. This is because the film was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the cheery mind behind Magnolia (seen with the aid of THC and Oxycontin) and There Will Be Blood (Absinthe and Quaaludes). Since those films generally lacked the titular element – One had frogs, but no flowers, the other, a severe lack of blood – I anticipated absolutely no master of any kind to make an appearance.
Instead, Anderson threw me a curve by giving me two and a half hours of exactly what he promised, a master. His master takes the form of Philip Seymour Hoffman who I previously loved in Synecdoche, New York (Ecstasy), possibly one of the most surreal films of all time.
I will try to avoid spoilers, as I went to see it during the art-house release, which I would recommend. Films are always better when you can only get in if you “know a guy.” Or your manservant smuggles you in.
Hoffman plays a chain-smoking, cult-leading “guru” that is based in some loose part on Scientology founder and notorious whack-job L. Ron Hubbard, and also seems to bring to mind self-help douchebag, Dr. Phil.
That’s right, I insulted L. Ron and Dr. Phil in one sentence. My funeral arrangements are finalized, and I have made peace with the only god of my understanding, Shiva: The Destroyer.
The film follows Hoffman as he meets with drunken ne’er do well Freddie, played by Joaquin Phoenix in his most convincing portrayal of a loser and a jackass since I’m Still Here where he played himself. In this, his character has one of the best hobbies I have ever seen: mixing intoxicants from photography chemicals. I installed a darkroom in the Manse immediately after seeing it. Well, I commanded it made, anyhow.
Hoffman uses an interrogation method to help inaugurate Phoenix that is vaguely reminiscent of the Scientology intake ritual to help “cleanse” Freddie of “toxins.” Did he say toxins or Thetans? Sorry, got sidetracked.
The most interesting part of the film is watching Hoffman invoke every cult leader from Marshall Applewhite to Rev. Sun Myung Moon to Tony Robbins. The writing combines positive, self-actualized thinking with religious fuckery then tops it off with sudden outbursts when challenged, all executed pitch-perfect by Hoffman.
It is not a feel good film, even for those of us that have led cults. I kept rooting for Hoffman’s character to take over the world, but instead…well, we’ll just say he doesn’t. If you enjoy a little psycho-drama, a little mockery of God gone wrong, and what happens to those that expect simple answers spoon-fed to them, then you owe it to yourself to see The Master with a nice bottle of Photo-Booth Gin.