Battles for Self

Philip Seymour Hoffman, center, in The Master.

THE MASTER, Paul Thomas Anderson’s stomach-punching, fingernails-down-a-chalkboard psychological thriller loosely based on the founding of Scientology, might be more deeply understood as a tale of two egos. We witness a titanic battle for self-control by a man who knows nothing of it (Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell), while another struggles to distinguish imagination from delusion, his simmering rage emanating perhaps from the terror that the truth he has found may not be enough (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, Lancaster Dodd). Neither of them knows how to love; both are desperate to be loved. They find in each other a conversation partner, a patient, an unrequited lover. They are two of the most human characters the movies have brought us in a long time; their power trips are terrifying, because they may remind us of our own.

There are many key moments: The first meeting between the war veteran and new religious leader, the dictator bonding with his subject over mutual substance abuse; the master holding court in New York society, first offering tender words of potential healing to a grand dame, then exploding at a guest who dares question the source of his “knowledge”; the protégé being experimented with, commanded to walk up and down between a wall and a window until he is both capable of imagining unbridled freedom and driven nearly mad in the process; a science-fictionesque digging for buried treasure on Arizona flatlands that could pass for Mars.

The moment that remains most resonant in my memory after two viewings is still the most ambiguous to me. After Freddie and Dodd first meet, the new father invites the new son (the relationship—and failings of relationship—between fathers and sons is where this film really aches) to attend his daughter’s wedding. The invitation is accompanied by a warning or an invocation: Dodd tells him either “Your memories aren’t welcome” or “Your memories are welcome.” Two viewings leave it unclear—I could check a third time, but it doesn’t really matter, for each is a blessing. You don’t have to carry your trauma always and everywhere. Or you can join this community and still be fully yourself.

It’s a mark of the moral complexity of The Master that it can critique the damage done by demonic religion while honoring the best hopes of its angelic shades. The movie’s not really about Scientology per se, but about power and love. Like the 1966 film by Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, it’s too big a film to be interpreted in a review. It needs to be seen, deserves to be studied, and invites a response in life as well as words.

Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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