What You Need To Know:
THE MASTER starts with lewd sexual content and ends with it. In between are some interesting parts with some sophisticated acting, along with a bizarre scene full of extremely explicit nudity. The movie seems to have a humanist, Freudian worldview, but its conclusions about Freddie’s troubled psyche and the cult seem rather pedestrian. The lewd scenes in THE MASTER are unwatchable and unacceptable. Viewers won’t learn much about what really makes Scientology unacceptable or false.
(HHH, FRFR, Ho, M) Very strong humanist and apparently Freudian, but unclear, worldview about a Scientology-like cult leader who talks about reincarnation and past lives but that offers only superficial criticisms and little if any theological, or even psychological, insights, plus light homosexual allusions in one scene but they are somewhat vague and contradicted by comments in the production notes; 42 obscenities (including many “f” words), two strong profanities, four light profanities; some intense violence includes fighting, sailors playfully wrestle on a beach, man wrestles with police officers, angry man trashes his jail cell in a fit of rage; strong sexual content includes depicted fornication in one nude scene, man pretends to have intercourse with sand image of naked lady and to violently touch its genitals, depicted self-abuse from behind, married woman places hand on man’s upper thigh but he removes it, and she later accuses him in front of others that he’s attracted to her, but it appears the other way around, woman takes off her top in front of photographer in his darkroom, and he pokes her naked breasts playfully, and women are completely nude at a party, but the men remain clothed; full frontal female nudity at party where the females are suddenly completely nude, upper female nudity in a couple other scenes, upper male nudity, partial rear male nudity in self-abuse scene, and images of a naked lady created with sand on a beach; alcohol use and abuse, including drunkenness, and older man gets sic from drinking too much homemade alcohol; smoking cigarettes; and, strong miscellaneous immorality (though often explicitly or implicitly rebuked to a certain extent), such as cult behavior, cult leader seems deceptive at times and doesn’t like hard questions, cult leader gets angry at hard questions, cult leader accused of making things up as he goes along and this seems to be the case, bizarre uses of hypnosis, bizarre uses of pseudo-psychological techniques, uncontrollable anger.
THE MASTER explores the world of Post World War II American where alternative spiritual factions sprang up, such as American Buddhism and Dianetics, the founding philosophy of Scientology. It’s a slow movie that doesn’t quite capture the dramatic potential of its subject. It also has a significant, excessive amount of obscene, lewd content, especially nudity. In fact, the movie is just as much about sexual lust as it is about religion and families in the early 1950s.
The story opens on the verge of the peace treaty between Japan and the United States. It focuses on the life of a Navy veteran named Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix of THE GLADIATOR and SIGNS. Freddie is a troubled, alcoholic loner seething with unrequited lust and anger. While the other sailors on the beach in Guam engage in horseplay, Freddie sits alone drinking, building naked sand women and abusing himself.
Cut to Freddie working as a department store photographer. He begins a tentative affair with the woman modeling the store’s prettiest dresses, but he has to leave when he suddenly gets angry while taking the photo of a stuffy self-satisfied businessman. Then, while working on a migrant farm, an elderly worker gets sick from drinking too much of Freddie’s homemade alcoholic concoctions. Freddie flees for his life, then stows away on a yacht in San Francisco bay fixing to sail thru the Panama Canal to New York.
Captain of the boat is Lancaster Dodd, founder of the Scientology-like cult called The Cause. Freddie intrigues Dodd, including Freddie’s flask of homemade liquor. Dodd asks Freddie to stay on board and make more of the liquor for him.
Freddie, for his part, becomes fascinated by Dodd’s friendly charisma and easygoing charm. The two men become fast friends, with Dodd beginning to think of Freddie as a son.
However, Freddie remains a troubled man. His alcohol-fueled anger begins to threaten the public acceptance of Dodd’s cult. It also upsets Dodd’s family, including Dodd’s strict, younger wife, Peggy and Dodd’s real son, not to mention the marital bliss of the daughter’s marriage.
Applying a theory of reincarnation, Dodd thinks he has the answers to overcoming modern man’s animal lusts. So, he begins to view Freddie not just as a potential right-hand man or even official heir, but also as a test of Dodd’s pet, idiosyncratic psychological theories. At first, Freddie finds some comfort in his sessions with Dodd, but he begins to look behind the curtain and rebel.
THE MASTER opens with crude examples of Freddie’s uncontrolled sexuality. It doesn’t become very interesting until Freddie begins to encounter both Dodd and Dodd’s weird methods of psychoanalysis. However, in the middle of the story, there’s another weird scene of open sexuality and nudity. Also, the movie eventually ends on a final sexual note. This scene seems to suggest that Freddie finally has become free of both Dodd and his own sexual neuroses.
These lewd scenes appear to lead to a simplistic, two-bit Freudian message of freeing Freddie from his sexual “repression.” Or, at least it seems that way. Also, the lewd scene in the middle features many shots of full female nudity at a party where the men remain (conveniently) clothed. Immediately following this scene is a bathroom scene between Dodd and his wife where the wife tells Dodd not to bring sex into his methods anymore while she [unseen] brings him to orgasm with her hand. As the wife of one of our employees would say, “Bizarro!” THE MASTER also contains excessive foul language. The sex scenes are not necessarily extremely graphic, but the nudity in the one scene and the obscenities definitely are. All this lewd content muddies the waters and actually detracts from whatever enjoyment people might get from the other parts of the story, settings and acting.
Furthermore, although some of the acting in THE MASTER is superb, other parts are just weird. Like the New Age guru at the center of this story, the writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson, seems to be making it all up as he goes along.
Finally, if people are looking to THE MASTER for an insightful examination of Scientology and its founder L. Ron Hubbard, they should look elsewhere. The movie makes some good points about the potential benefits and problems with such idiosyncratic cults, but the points are rather pedestrian. Also, in one scene, a critic of the fictional cult featured in the movie gives a psychological definition for the word cult. The best Christian leaders in the cult awareness movement, however, always present a theological definition for the word cult. In their parlance, a cult is not a religion with one charismatic founder, as THE MASTER suggests in this one scene cited above. Instead, a cult is a religious group that has an unorthodox or heretical and, hence, unbiblical doctrine or explanation for God, God’s Creation, the Nature of Man, God’s Church, and/or Jesus Christ. Thus, according to this definition, religious groups which act like a cult include such groups as Jehovah’s Witness, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints aka the Mormon Church, Islam, Hare Krishna, the Baha’i Church, Scientology, many New Age concoctions, and some forms of Talmudic Judaism.
Thus, the American cinema still needs a really riveting, insightful, and truthful look into the cult of Scientology. THE MASTER is definitely not it!