The Master’s Radical Political Critique

The Master, the latest movie from director Paul Thomas Anderson, initially seems to miss the mark after aiming high, but it nonetheless gets under your skin! A few days after seeing the film, I realized that it sticks with you because there is a possible political critique embodied in the relationship between the characters played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix that is so audacious, it is almost thrilling, even as it struggles to emerge under Anderson’s languorous directorial pace.

The Master is set in 1950s America. Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a con man modeled loosely on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, though the film is clearly not a bio-pic. Dodd is in the process of creating a quasi-religious cult of personality that lures adherents with various forms of past life regression and psychographic analysis. Phoenix is cast as Freddie Quell, a volatile, hard drinking Navy veteran on the lam from the law who is taken in by Dodd and falls under his sway in 1950, several years after his military discharge.

Dodd and Quell are connected early in the story, and their symbiotic relationship is the beating heart of the movie. Amy Adams plays Dodd’s blunt-spoken wife Peggy, a third pole to whom both men turn for mediation in moments of crisis. The acting by Hoffman, Phoenix and Adams is superb.

Many reviewers saw the movie, alternately, as a grand character study; an exploration of the extremes of human behavior; an intense examination of symbiotic master-slave relationships; or a penetrating depiction of a post-War US social milieu conducive to the rise of quasi-religious Utopian cults.

While there are doubtless elements of truth in all of these interpretations, none of them resonate fully for me. In fact, much of the critical commentary seems like equivocation, a reluctance to deal with the movie’s potentially disruptive politics. My take on the film is that it is a radical critique of capitalism itself. Dodd and Quell are symbolic of the two contradictory faces of capitalism and the particular forms they took after WW II.

Dodd can be seen as the embodiment of the irresistibly packaged and polished public face of capitalism, consumer ready and highly accessible. He is endlessly fun and inviting, perpetually optimistic even as he stumbles forward, always trying to understand the innermost needs, desires and vulnerabilities of his prospective audience so he can exploit them and continue growing the market until it becomes a kind of movement.

Like the embryonic consumerism of the 1950s USA, Dodd’s nascent movement has a rough hewn tent revival feel to it. He is “…making it up as he goes along…,” as Dodd’s son says in the film. The sophisticated consumer techniques of marketing persuasion and emotional manipulation are still being perfected.

Quell is the darker, chaotic underside of that self-serving, self-promoting capitalist movement. The militarized havoc and destruction so recently mobilized for global war now lurk in Quell’s personality as a troubled veteran. He is emblematic of the destructive forces beneath the slickly packaged surface, breaking into episodic violence and drunken binges while taking on the role of loyal enforcer whenever Dodd’s self-control appears threatened.

These two characters cannot exist without one another. They are two sides of the same symbolic coin, which is why Dodd keeps taking Quell back after the latter’s destructive outbreaks. Peggy and the rest of Dodd’s family want Quell thrown out of the cult and ostracized. Perhaps here, Peggy Dodd is a symbol of the quest for a tranquil domestic life that goes on at the center of the capitalist maelstrom.

It is still possible to cavil about the movie’s flaws and the many ways it fails to reach its own lofty goals. It often seems as if Anderson’s ambition and technical skill have overtaken his artistic voice, serving to distort the larger arcs of character development and metaphoric meaning with lethargic pacing that borders on self-indulgence.

However, armed with a political interpretation that makes complete sense to me, I admire Anderson’s bold attempt to tell a high moral fable rather than trying merely to entertain. I think The Master stands apart from the overwhelming majority of Hollywood films because of its ambitious political goals if nothing else. In the arid landscape of today’s corporate movie industry, the emergence of such a wonderfully subversive cinematic political critique is not only rich with irony, but a cause for joyous celebration.