Review: The Master



I went into “The Master” thinking it was a thinly veiled story about L. Ron Hubbard. Having spent two weeks in Scientology’s Celebrity Center as part of Hubbard’s Writers of the Future crowd, I was intrigued. But this is not a story about Hubbard or Scientology at all. Oh, sure, the character is Hubbard-like. No doubt about that. The director has already stated that, and the matches between “The Master”‘s Cause and Scientology are obvious. But this is not Philip Seymour Hoffman’s (Dowd/Hubbard) story at all.

Instead, it is Joaquin Phoenix’s story, Freddie Quell’s story.

And, though I admit this might not be the movie for everyone, I really, really liked it.

It’s a story about young men who returned from the horrific, bloody battlegrounds of WWII and were completely unprepared for the experience. And, conversely, it is about the country that brought them back and was equally unprepared to help them.

By the time the war is over Quell is already a broken man. Proof? He mixes his alcoholism with torpedo fuel. This skill is something the flamboyant Hubbard/Dowd will later take great joy in, but it represents the depths to which Quell has already sunk. There is nothing for him when he returns to the US in peacetime. He finds work, but can’t hold it. He finds Dowd/Hubbard, and Dowd/Hubbard does some psychological magic and it seems to help Quell a little, but we all see it’s a tough, tough road ahead for Freddie Quell. Dowd/Hubbard takes a liking to Quell, and a partnership of some uncertain depth is formed.

Throughout it all, Dowd/Hubbard attempts to help Quell “get better” (as Dowd/Hubbard’s strictly Cause/Scientology-adherent wife, played by Amy Adams, puts it). And Freddie tries. Lord, does he ever try. But there isn’t anything to do for him. The Cause/Scientology is not strong enough, it seems, or Freddie’s injury is too deep. Freddie cannot break his cycle, and in the end he is cast aside by everyone in the Cause/Scientology–the sidekick followers, Dowd/Hubbard’s adherent wife, and finally even Hubbard/Dowd give the broken warrior an ultimatum (albeit a very goodhearted one in Dowd/Hubbard’s case). Freddie Quell cannot be saved, and in the end he is the same shattered man that he was when the movie is begun.

Earlier, Lisa and I saw “Argo.” “Argo” was a film I left the theater loving, but that has faded in my mind to merely “workmanlike good” over the last few days. I’m glad we saw it, and recommend it just fine. I had the alternate experience with “The Master.” I left the theater not sure if I liked it or not, but as Lisa and I talked about it, I decided further and further along that this was an outstanding piece of work. I like it even more this morning than I did last night.

In the end, for me, I find the entire Dowd/Hubbard slant to be a really skilled slight-of-hand. You see, for me, the Cause/Scientology represents all of America in the 50s. The Cause/Scientology has its jovial optimism (as did the US of the post-war period) in which all would be fine if you just worked hard enough or ignored a few inconvenient truths. The Cause has its hardline principle-based and conservative backbone (as did the US in the post-war period … and, of course, beyond). The Cause has its mindless followers, and it has its open-minded members attached because of family (the Dowd/Hubbard son is clearly not on the train, but is taking the ride because it’s a convenient ride). US (like all countries, I assume) has those citizens of random chance, who stand by it because … well, it’s as good of a place as any and, you know, it’s just too hard to move to Scandinavia or wherever, and you never know if they really do have it better over there or not.

You get the point.

And, (again) for me, this whole use of the Cause/Scientology as a stand-in for the rest of the country is the metaphor the movie is centered around. It’s what gives it the power it has. “The Master” uses the average person’s disdain for Scientology to slip into a story that is fundamentally about the whole of society.

The world has, unfortunately or fortunately, learned a lot about Post Traumatic Stress disorder since the time of the second world war. We treat it differently. But the US of the 50s was not equipped to help the Freddie Quell’s of the time, and the Freddie Quells of the time desperately needed that help.

The failing of the Cause/Scientology/the country to be able to provide that help is the whole basis for the story–which, in the end, is that some people are too broken to help. Except, of course … perhaps … with a great amount of time and a great amount of patient compassion. Perhaps Freddie can be saved. I say this because in the end, you see, it is broken-down Freddie Quell who makes the active decision to turn down the Cause/Scientology/Government (and even religion?), and to go on living his life on his own terms. And, in the end, we see Freddie Quell actually living, sort of, anyway, in a painfully awkward, Freddie Quell kind of way. We even see him in a clumsy attempt to apply some of his experiences. He’s free now to live his life, and he’s going to do it. He’s probably in for a lot of trouble. He’s still broken, after all. But you never know. In the movie’s last frame, he is as happy as he’s ever been throughout the entire movie. And, while he’s got no one left to count on but himself, you never count out a fighter with the capacity to throw that one haymaker that can snatch victory from what appears to be certain defeat.

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