“What are you going to see?” the middle-aged woman scooping my popcorn at the local cinema snack counter asked.
“The Master” I responded “Have you seen it yet?”
“Not yet. But everyone looks really disturbed when they exit the theater.” Her eyes crinkled with her smile as she reached across the counter with the red and white striped popcorn bag and water bottle that would accompany me for the film.
“Thanks for the warning!” I said, accepting my snack.
I wondered if I would find the film disturbing as I entered the dark movie theater alone, having chosen to avoid explaining (again!) about cult dynamics to my present social world.
Rather than being disturbed, I watched a compassionate and compelling portrayal of the early development of a destructive cult, even if the movie exaggerated the character of Freddie.
“The Master” by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, brilliantly portrays cult vulnerability, seduction, exploitation and confusion through the character of an alcoholic WWII veteran with a family mental health history named Freddie, brilliantly played by Juaquin Phoenix. Freddie falls for the charismatic and authoritative Lancaster Dodd, founder of a group called The Cause, convincingly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Set in post-WWII, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the leader of a cult-like group based upon the early days of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology who presents himself as a caring author, scientist and philosopher gathering wealthy adherents to promote his work. Beginning with intimate gatherings in the homes of wealthy supporters, Lancaster Dodd promotes his teachings and provides personal support to a growing flock. By the end of the film, The Cause has grown to global proportions with real estate, a private school for uniformed youth and other programs.
Juaquin Phoenix’s Freddie is the film’s disturbed central character who struggles with alcoholism and identity as he follows The Master Dodd. The film shows the majority of the The Cause’s followers as functional, well dressed professionals united by a common purpose to spread their Master’s teachings. In much the same way as my own parents and their friends began hosting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s closest acolytes as guests in their homes in the 1960’s, with expansion to rented halls and eventually global real estate holdings. Many exploitative groups begin exactly the same way.
According to Joe Szimhart, “The film captured early L Ron Hubbard quite well in Hoffman’s character and exposes several TRs or “Training Rundowns” that Scientology uses even today in their expensive ‘pre-Clear’ sessions. Also, it shows the son as merely going along–that son co-produced a book exposing his dad later called “Messiah or Madman?” Content for the film was extracted from this book, I believe.”
For those familiar with cult dynamics, I found the film to be an excellent depiction of a once-familiar family and social dynamic. For those who are not acquainted with cult dynamics, the film may be confusing.
Paul Thomas-Anderson’s script and camera angles are the best depiction that I’ve seen yet of a variation of my own skewed upbringing. Thank you, Paul!