there’s one scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master that crawls under your skin and refuses to leave. Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic cult leader of The Cause (read Scientology) opens up his arms to Freddie Quell, Joaquin Phoenix’s post-WWII sailor drifter, a lonely alcoholic specialising in lethal booze mixtures and sexual obsession and whose psychological burdens are erratically flashed in public through violent outbursts.
in this particular scene Dodd invites Quell to a ‘processing’ session in which he asks him rapid questions demanding equally quick and truthful answers. Quell jokes around at first, seemingly incapable of making an effort, but as the scene escalates suppressed memories surface and the face of Phoenix becomes distorted, almost inhuman, a ruthless reflection of his extreme psychological torment. the diabolical vein plastered across his forehead grows bigger and bigger, the eyes go black, his voice is painfully desperate and honest.
The Master raises many questions, while answering few – all within a sort of anti-narrative almost completely devoid of a traditional storyline. The Cause, perhaps unable to cure a wounded drifter, is nonetheless the only form of help on offer. Dodd is perhaps the first person that cares about Quell and makes genuine attempts to change his ways (with perhaps dubious cult-like methods), while the great American star-spangled state has thrown him into a faraway war only to refuse him a second chance on return. Quell, among thousands of other soldiers haunted by psychological trauma, is expected to neatly conform to social norms and become a respectful suburban citizen with a prosperous small-scale business.
The Cause is portrayed as an obvious sham, the imaginings of a captivating and manipulative mind that sometimes spirals out of control, exploding in anger and thereby mirroring the unaccebtable volatility of Quell. Quell, a man without family, roots or home, is vulnerable and easily swayed and has perhaps nothing else to believe in.