I have to apologize, because I feel like in the past few months, I’ve written about way too many recent movies. I think of all the movies I’ve written about this year, eight of them were released in 2012. So I’d really like to talk more about movies from the past. However, I feel really led right now to write about another 2012 film, one that has a lot more spiritual significance to me than many other movies from last year: “The Master”.
This was writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to his 2007 epic “There Will Be Blood”, which many acclaimed to be the best film of last decade. “The Master” isn’t as developed as that film (in fact, a lot of people have complained about its third act, if you could call it a “third act”), but it’s still pretty powerful to me. The film is about Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War Two veteran who has been scarred in many ways. When we are introduced to him, basically all he talks about is sex and drinking, and it’s not at all healthy.
When he returns to the States, his habits start interfering with his ability to get back to a normal life. He gets a job as a portrait photographer at a department store, and he ruins a relationship with a female co-worker before getting into a fight with a customer. He leaves that job (or is fired, I’m not sure) and finds a job on a farm, but after some of his alcohol poisons another worker, he runs away and tries to find something else to do.
One night, he passes a huge yacht where dozens of people are having some kind of party. He sneaks in, drunk, and wakes up the next morning to find out that he had caused another of his drunken riots. But he is rescued in a way by the leader of that group, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who tells Freddie to get him more of that apparently good alcohol. Freddie stays on the yacht for the marriage of Lancaster’s daughter, and he meets Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and others in the process, through whom Freddie tries to continue to feed his sexual desires.
I should probably mention that this film is loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of Scientology. Dodd is meant to represent Hubbard, as the leader of a religious sect called “The Cause”. And the way I see it, the Cause has nothing really to say about religion or faith but is rather just a way of Lancaster Dodd feeling like a leader. (Feel free to correct me if I’m seeing it the wrong way.) And Lancaster tries to correct Freddie’s sinful ways through forms of hypnosis, repetition, psychology, and a bunch of other stuff that I needn’t describe here. But I will say that some of the conversations between Freddie and Lancaster contain some intense acting performances.
Eventually, at an event, Lancaster is confronted from an outsider about what the heck the Cause is. And maybe it’s just me, but as Lancaster tries to explain his organization to this outsider, John More (Christopher Evan Welch), Lancaster neither makes any sense as he speaks, nor does he provide any kindness.
MORE: Good science by definition allows for more than one opinion, doesn't it?
…Otherwise you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult, is it not? …I belong to no club, and if you're unwilling to allow any discussion...
DODD: No, this isn't a discussion, it's a grilling! There's nothing I can do for you, if your mind has been made up. You seem to know the answers to your questions, why do you ask?
MORE: I'm sorry you're unwilling to defend your beliefs in any kind of rational...
DODD: If, if you already know the answers to your questions, then why ask, [pig]? We are not helpless. And we are on a journey that risks the dark. If you don't mind, a good night to you.
But if Lancaster seems unwilling to explain his beliefs, Freddie is none the wiser as he later goes to John More’s place of residence and beats him up. Soon, Freddie and Lancaster are arrested (not for beating John, but for misappropriation of funds somewhere else), and after they are released, many people (including Lancaster’s family) say that Freddie should not be part of their organization—that he may be a spy, or his heart might not be in it all the way. And long story short, after several months, Freddie takes off and abandons the Cause for good, essentially coming back to the emotionally unstable place that he was when he first met Lancaster.
Hopefully I made that ending sound abrupt, because really, the film ends abruptly and anticlimactically. But to me, I think the ambiguity of the ending says a lot about how the Cause really was ineffective and useless for Freddie. And maybe part of the problem was that Freddie was unwilling to change, but maybe part of the problem was also that Lancaster’s “religion” was not rooted in truth. The Cause was nothing but a way for people to make them feel better about themselves. And some people would be quick to say that this is all religion is: as the phrase goes, an “opium for the masses”.
I, of course, do not believe this. I have experienced the love and grace of God in such a powerful way to know that Christianity is not just a positive way of thinking. It is so much more than that—it is the way to a life of purpose, as well as an eternal life. And I mean it when I say that it is the way. Shortly before his arrest, Jesus is recorded to have prayed for his disciples in a lengthy passage in the Gospel of John. Before this, he tells them an often-quoted verse in Scripture: “‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (14:6)
This is probably why many criticize Christianity—how can Jesus call Himself the only way to God? That doesn’t leave a whole lot of choice. But the way I see it, there has to be only one way to God. Other religions claim that there is more than one way, but to me, that doesn’t really make sense. To live a truly pure, eternal life, there must be only one way, and I firmly believe that the way is through Jesus Christ. I pray that every day, you and I would take steps to believe that more and more, that God would fill our hearts with faith.