PARALLELS have been drawn between the plot of ‘The Master’, the latest film by Paul Thomas Anderson, and the founding of Scientology. While there are similarities, the story is relatable to any controversial religious organisation.
The night before I saw ‘The Master’, I watched a documentary on cult leader Jim Jones, who led 909 people to commit suicide in 1978. Followers paradoxically spoke of his ability to be friendly and generous and also his ability to dominate and oppress. Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, the film’s ‘messiah’, personifies these qualities with uncanny accuracy – at one minute charming, the next, controlling. Many scenes feature him using simple yet real brainwashing techniques to break the spirits of his recruits.
The main focus of the story is Freddie Quell, a Navy seaman, played by Joaquin Phoenix. At the end of World War II, Freddie, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, returns to normal life and has a hard time adjusting. Drinking heavily and unable to control his wild anger, he seems lost and looking for meaning.
One night, he stows away on a yacht, during a party held by a cult known as ‘The Cause’. Its leader, Lancaster Dodd, takes a shine to Freddie and asks him to join. At first sceptical, he eventually becomes one of the most fanatical of Dodd’s followers, submitting to regular therapy sessions and even physically attacking Dodd’s vocal critics. Joaquin Phoenix, full of manic fury, is outstanding and grabs your attention in every scene he’s in.
The film contains some stunning imagery that stayed with me long after watching it. The story, unfortunately, never advanced in any major way. Unfolding at a snail’s pace, the plot is painfully slow, and at 143 minutes, would’ve benefited from a drastically shorter running time. Ultimately, ‘The Master’ was a disappointment.
By Kelan Headley