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'The Master,' Reviewed

by Jake Mynatt

What makes a religion? There’s a great big universe out there, and we must fight and claw our way to understanding just a tiny sliver of it. So there’s obviously a great amount of money to be made by those who can convincingly provide answers. If you’ve got a good enough line of bullshit, it would behoove you to give it a name, get yourself a lawyer, and lock that down.

A contract with the Multi-Level Marketing group Randy Industries is iron-clad. Crafted by the law firm of Pinkerton, Duff, and Graves for Starkweather Enterprises, of which Randy Industries is a subsidiary, it is considered to be the judicial equivalent of Chinese finger cuffs – the harder you try to pull out of it, the tighter its hold becomes. According to legend, if you read the contract out loud three times in front of a mirror, founding partner Franz Pinkerton will appear out of thin air and claim durable power of attorney over you.

Since sobering up, Ronnie had hired his own lawyer to try and get out of the contract. During the deposition, Barry Starkweather himself managed to get the lawyer and the court stenographer to enroll in “The Program.” Ronnie’s lawyer then explained to him that the contract was “tighter than a frog’s tooter” and suggested that he be remanded to the Starkweather Mountain Retreat for the weekend where he would undergo a series of “Affiliate Awareness” seminars. There, he would learn that selling name-brand-like products at arguably low prices to strangers in airport terminals is more than just a way to earn a meager commission: it is a spiritually fulfilling way of life.

I find the freedoms of having the house to myself to be overwhelming at times. I crave the constraints of maintaining ultimate stealth. But when the world around me matches my stillness and silence I become all too aware of the void. To help shake off the sense of encroaching inner darkness while Ronnie was away, I made my way to the local cinema to see The Master, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson.

Ronnie has been known to indulge in a drink or two in his time, and bearing witness to his downward spiral of crippling addiction has provided me with a great deal of enjoyment. So it was with a sense of warm familiarity that I cozied up to the character of Freddie Quell, played with manic intensity by Joaquin Phoenix. He’s a man addicted to escaping from reality. His drug of choice is rocket fuel, or paint thinner, or photo developing chemicals, and so on, but in a pinch some good old fashioned booze will do. At the end of World War II he finds himself with a surplus of fully fueled ordinance ready to tap as a means of escaping horrors which remain unseen to the audience. I found it to be a wise choice to avoid showing the traumatic events of the war so that Freddie is presented to us as he is seen by the world: broken and scheming.

Adrift in the world, Freddie uses his home hooch-brewing skills to gain popularity among some migrant workers. Unfortunately, like so many snake-oil salesmen, his tonic doesn’t quite work and he has to hightail it out of there. This brings him onto the boat of Lancaster Dodd, the titular Master, played wonderfully as a giddy and slightly unhinged huckster by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He’s giddy because he’s discovered a path to enlightenment, and he is all too eager to share it.

Dodd’s discovery is “The Cause,” a spiritual movement offering to free you of the scars of past lives buried deep in the psyche. By the time he comes across Freddie as a stowaway and enjoys his questionable flask of chemical swill, “The Cause” has already caught on throughout the country thanks to the self-published book of the same name and Dodd’s promotional traveling road show, which is coincidentally funded by some of his richer followers. Dodd becomes a fashionable guest to have at a party, offering therapy sessions which resemble nightclub hypnosis routines. It’s seemingly harmless until claims are made regarding its ability to cure disease.

The film never dwells on the specifics of “The Cause.” Its rituals and beliefs are only revealed through their portrayal on screen and without any explanation as to how those conclusions were reached beyond speculation of a scant few doubters. I suppose the point is not to give a guided tour but to see it in action. I was mesmerized by the creepy “processing” sessions. These are deep interviews which emphasize complete honesty and provide a strangely cold way to achieve a kind of intimacy. The interviewers come to know the ghosts that haunt you on a first name basis. And it gives them a powerful weapon to use against those who might turn on them.

Freddie Quell approaches “The Cause” with as open a mind as he is able to muster in his chemically damaged stupor. It made me wonder how open Ronnie would be to accepting the responsibilities of being a Randy Industries reseller without the aid of drugs or alcohol. He was never one to undertake a repetitive behavior without some kind of immediate reward, and thirty-cents below retail on a ten pound sack of Starkweather Brand Wheat-flavored Fiber Chunks didn’t really seem like the kind of steam that would get his engine chugging.

When Ronnie returned from his weekend, there was a look of glazed contentment on his face that was once only achieved by sitting in a closet with open containers of cleaning products for too long. He was accompanied by Randy who proceeded to rifle through Ronnie’s DVD collection to remove any “negative influence films.” A fresh copy of Glengarry Glen Ross was left in the DVD player and Ronnie was reminded to “Always Be Closing.”

Once Randy left, Ronnie jumped right on the phone with Gary, informing him that he may have gotten himself “hip deep in shit” with some “crazy Amway sonsabitches.” He went on to explain the high pressure tactics he’d endured, but once in awhile found himself really trying to convince Gary that there were some good deals if he’d just be willing to sign up under him as an affiliate. He had to slap himself across the face to break out of the sales pitch before continuing to explain the “fucko bazoo” weekend he’d just endured.

Such dissent isn’t always a sign that one is ready to abandon their spiritual quest. Along the way, Freddie encounters negative influences that cause him to doubt his devotion, including Dodd’s own son who tells him that his dad is “making it up as he goes along.” Perhaps what draws Freddie and Dodd together so uniquely is the percolating rage under their surface which erupts when confronted with these arguments. For Freddie, it manifests in physical violence while in Dodd it comes out in short bursts of profanity. Rumor has it that Barry Starkweather vents his rage by beating hanging sides of beef with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, but when asked about it his affiliates simply write it off as a “smear campaign conducted by those blinded by name brands and inflated retail prices.”

Unlike “The Cause” that it portrays, The Master doesn’t pretend to offer any answers. There’s not a whole lot of kinetic energy in the film. It’s subdued and slow-cooked in a way I admire. It remains unclear if the effect on Freddie Quell is good or bad, or even long lasting. “The Cause” continues to grow and evolve to meet the needs of those who follow it, but the film doesn’t draw any conclusions or cast any judgments. It is merely there to present the events that occur. As Ronnie attempts to lawyer up once more, the film still lingers with me, my opinion of it changing as I process it. I have to wonder if there is any deeper meaning at all or am I just looking too hard?

There’s a scene early on where Freddie explains how his volatile alcohol/industrial chemical concoction had accidentally poisoned a man. Dodd asks if Freddie had intended to poison him as well. Freddie replies that it’s not poison if you know how to drink it.

And that’s religion in a nutshell.

Illustration courtesy of the author


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Jake Mynatt is a writer as Charles Manson is a singer/songwriter. By trade, he's a computer guy. He's married, and loving it so much he hopes to start dozens of secret families all over the country. That's just a joke, unless you're interested. Send headshots and a signed pre-nup to jake.mynatt [at]