Certain films, whether they’re franchise fare like The Hunger Games or The Avengers, or indie tone poems like Tree of Life or Drive, insist on a visceral, almost inchoate, appreciation. Sure, you can talk about how camera angles frame the director’s ethical perspective, or explore how lighting choices illuminate character, but you’d be hamstringing yourself. When Katniss takes her sister’s place in the arena or Captain America sacrifices himself to save a world he doesn’t feel a part of; when volcanic eruptions symbolize a father’s rage, or a chord of 80’s techno-pop evokes a young man’s inability to feel, we watch our own aspirations and insecurities writ large on the silver screen.
The Master is, for most people, not one of those films. Most people I’ve spoken to have little more than an intellectual appreciation for it, at best. Perhaps this is because audiences were expecting a less meditative (some might say meandering) follow-up to Paul Thomas Anderson’s gut-punching quasi-Biblical epic There Will Be Blood. They wanted thunder and got, instead, flashes of dry lightning that might startle, but never inspire awe. I watched the recently(ish)-released DVD with a friend a week ago and she said, “It’s pretty, but it lacks a pulse.”
But when I sat in the movie house dark—four times total—my skin lifted from my bones like the starchy tendrils of a starved plant rising up for a raindrop. I was a mess of chattering teeth and hot, twitching muscle. I’d seen my upbringing imposed on a silver screen—not for the first time, for sure—but unexpectedly.
Trauma is a gift that keeps on giving. The nightmares may subside, and sudden noises will no longer turn the heart into a hummingbird. Still, the trigger is always half-cocked, especially when we open ourselves to art: There is always some image or idea, some line of dialogue or the way it’s spoken, that brings us back to the battlefield, the backseat of that parked car, or the house we grew up in.
Like L. Ron Hubbard, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s titular character evinces an earthy yet erudite charisma that, upon closer look, is merely snake-oil sheen. And just like the author of Battlefield Earth, Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd spins yarns of time-travel and alien invaders. There’s the eerily invasive questioning—Do your past failures bother you? Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure?—that both cults use to break down their members (Dodd’s group The Cause calls it “processing”). And yet The Master is so much more than a wry riff on Scientology; it burrows through the barbed insularity of the cult to dredge up some devastating insights into the nature of family.
Or a certain kind of family, at least; the kind of family who turns Thanksgiving dinner into a night of ulcers and broken noses; the kind of family that could bankrupt us in therapy bills or ensure a free stay in a padded cell. I lived in thrall of a father who’d take on the basso profundo of Zeus and King Arthur as he read their stories aloud; a father who could, in the same night, take off his belt over a spilled saltshaker. So I understand the exquisite agony of awaiting the Supreme Leader’s final word.
Even the title of Dodd’s supposed masterwork, The Split Saber, (with its deliciously hubristic dedication “for the homo sapiens”) reflects the double-edged sharpness of living with—and trying to love—the people who can hurt you the most. I lived for the nights my father would read to me, even when I was too sore to curl into the crook of his arm. Though I had to inch wincingly up the pillow, I wouldn’t let him skip a single word. His rages (or, as my mother called them, “moods”) turned the air in any room, the air I breathed, into the air after a lightning strike. As she’d smooth ointment over my wounds, my mother cooed assurances that soon enough, I’d know when he was “having a bad day;” I’d become so attuned to his every smile and sigh that I’d know when it was safe to speak. He was everything he gave to me: the certainty of new clothes and food on the table, heat and a home. The world (at least as I knew it at ten years-old) spun along the tip of his finger.
Winning his favor—however fleeting (because it was fleeting)—was more validating than unconditional love could ever be. Dodd himself best describes this feeling during a boozy soliloquy about marriage; he equates joining a family with lassoing a dragon and forcing it to sit. “Next,” he crows, “we’re going to make it roll over and play dead.” Coming together isn’t about sharing a name or a laugh; it isn’t about celebrating blood bonds or milestones—it’s about jockeying for power. The camera closes in on Dodd’s newest follower, war-wrecked and perpetually soused Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) as his eyes brighten with the revelation of recognition: Even before he staggers upon Dodd’s (borrowed) yacht, he’s never known the warmth of family, only the heat of shrapnel and stinging fists.
Freddie comes to Dodd as a specter of a man; he’s a raw-boned jangle of nerves who’s tumbled through a hive of surrogate families: a school-aged sweetheart, his fellow sailors, and a group of migrant workers. None of them inspires the devotion—the swell of neurotic ferocity—he feels for Dodd. And Dodd, “The Master,” the father, the man with the upper hand, uses a serpent’s tongue to fork open Freddie’s chest and wrap around his heart. He woos Freddie with a brutal staccato of questions: Do you think God will save you? Have you ever had sex with anyone in your family? Freddie is leveled to tears, but his face, which has been frozen in a lopsided scowl, opens with an exquisite, nearly sensuous sorrow. This is the most attention anyone has ever paid to him.
Dodd calls Freddie an animal. He tells him that he’s the bravest boy he’s ever seen. Scorn and praise in a single sentiment: a fist to the face and a caress of the cheek. I have been a stupid bitch and a pretty girl in the course of a single night; they never cancelled each other out.
“You do this for a thousand years, or not at all.”
This line—delivered by Dodd’s chief co-conspirator, his wife Peggy (Amy Adams)—is the most chilling one in a film where one character admits to drunkenly fucking his own aunt (more than once), and another rhapsodizes about grown men committing suicide after reading The Master’s unpublished work. Part of what vests it with such terror is the tightly hinged insanity of Adams’ reading; her voice becomes a swarm of hornets inside a steel trap.
But the other part, the truly damning, devastating part of this line—which she says to Freddie as he mulls leaving The Cause for good—is its finality. A thousand years. Not at all. With us. Against us. That look in my mother’s eyes as she trundled me off to school every morning: Not one word. To anyone.
Though it may not have been the excoriation of Scientology that some viewers hoped for, The Master does show the arctic isolation of cult life. Freddie is first immersed in The Cause—with its talk of pre-birth trauma; its vow that “man is not an animal” operating on instinct alone; and its promise of reincarnation, countless tries to get it right—while at sea; there is no escape short of drowning.
My father’s father hit him, damn it, and he turned out okay. Better than okay. And unlike his father, my father didn’t even heat his belt buckles over gas flames. He only disciplined.
And I’d turn out okay. Better than okay. I was on the honor roll each quarter; I won a Maryland young artist award and my self-portrait hung in the Governor’s mansion; every college I applied to offered me at least a partial scholarship. And even if I wasn’t spurred by a zest for learning, or anything approaching my own ambition, even if I was propelled by that metallic taste that flooded my mouth whenever he slammed a door—weren’t these still real achievements, the sorts of things that would (in my father’s words) “take me places”?
My mother tittered over abuses she’d seen on Dateline: kids “in the system” burned with cigarettes; raped by a phalanx of different foster dads; cast out at eighteen with “no chance for anything.” And once I was out on my own, out of the state, in my own apartments—in the position to quite easily forget my parents forever—I still felt an odd (illogical) twinge of attachment to them. However gruesome their home had been, it still wasn’t “the system.”
The threat, the promise, in my mother’s words may not have been the roiling surf, but it was as dangerously deep.
Perhaps it’s a waste to devote so much thought to a movie that was released to mild acclaim (at best) almost a year ago. But every now and again, when I’m idling in an elevator or clasping the dog’s harness around her chest, I recall its opening image: Freddie’s eyes, shadowed by his helmet, peer over the edge of his battleship. His eyes are haunted houses; burning sage and holding hands can’t cleanse the violence that lingers within. I recognized those eyes. I’ve avoided them in the mirror.
In the film’s final sequence, Dodd tries to hold on to Freddie, the acolyte about to alight from The Cause, by telling him about their previous incarnation as comrades in arms. He says that if Freddie leaves now, they will be born again as bitter enemies. A promise. A threat. A plea.
I think of “time holes” and reincarnation, and I wonder if I’ve burrowed too deeply into a time hole of my own, if, through the act of writing, I’ve condemned myself to cycle through the same experiences—never moving on, never ascending. The next life, the one with a family of my own, always eludes me. I relive, in new ways, but still over and over, my worst days, the moments that obliterate my ability to trust.
But perhaps this continual return to earth and all its unshakeable aches doesn’t condemn us to stasis. Each birth, each blank page, is a chance to know anew the same souls we’ve always traveled with. Sometimes, they are the fathers who beat us over spilled milk; sometimes they are our friends in the pigeon post. Sometimes, they demand nothing less than our unfailing devotion. Sometimes, they just read to us until we fall asleep.