09/24/2012 05:32 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

'The Master': A Movie Review

"You can't take this life straight," the Master's lioness wife (Amy Adams) hurls disdainfully at a drunken Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) when he unceremoniously returns to see the Master, who has sought haven in England and who beseeched Freddie to return to the fold. This late scene in the movie exposes many of the themes of this Rubik's cube of a movie: Who is the master? Who has some measure of freedom from mastery? What is the magnetism that bonds the "Master," Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), to his dissolute patient, bulldog and intermittent follower? What propels a movement -- one based in mysticism and built with hucksterism? And can anyone bear life straight, without some form of "opiate"?

Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson acknowledges that The Master was modeled after the late L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. But this is not a film about Scientology or about Hubbard, any more than another of Anderson's films, There Will Be Blood, was about the oil tycoon who inspired its genesis. This is a film about the extraordinary complexities of human character and relationships. It could serve as a textbook for a lengthy psychology seminar.

The story begins in the waning days of World War II, when Freddie was a sailor on a highly decorated battleship. The war did not do his persona much good, but we realize he already was a damaged soul. After the war, we see him wander aimlessly, recklessly and self-destructively from job to job, making and taking poisonous drinks, until fate has him pass by the beacon emitted by Lancaster Dodd as he entertains a group of mesmerized followers reveling on a rich donor's cruise boat. Freddie stows aboard and a catalytic engagement ensues between the two men, far beyond their getting high on Freddie's brand of moonshine. Freddie, with nothing to lose and already far at sea in many ways, is eager for some work, room and board, so he is game for Dodd; but what in this current world (since past lives are already up for consideration) does Dodd see in and want from Freddie?

It has been said that a deeper look at any healer will disclose how much he (or she) seeks to be healed. Dodd is a healer who needs healing. And, as well, he is selling his wares as a visionary who can "cure cancer" and deliver "world peace" in a world recently beset with nuclear warheads, so he needs some proof that his brand of magic works: Freddie is to be his "protégé and guinea pig." But I think it is the love between the two men, homoerotic but not in a bodily way, that fuels their relationship and has each remain a devotee of the other despite abundant opposition from family and supporters; it is this love that enables them to withstand the withering disappointments they each serve up to one another.

Lancaster Dodd, the Master, is a fine example of what Hervey Cleckley's timeless study, The Mask of Sanity (1951), said of the psychopath: Is it not he himself who is most deeply deceived by his apparent normality? Cleckley was saying that the psychopath first and foremost deceives himself. Dodd was no Hannibal Lecter, another connoisseur and physician yet a bizarre nightmare of a man, but Dodd was a psychopath. His son says "he is making it up as his goes along," and publishers and ardent followers are soon awakened to their deception, their grief and outrage as great as was their faith in the Master.

An oceanic, spiritual metaphor is strong throughout the film: We repeatedly see images of the sea and the wake of a ship churning the deep blue; Dodd's movement asserts a billion years of life connected over time and through a force different from God but no less powerful; and our ceaseless yearning to fill a spiritual and human void is what gives his movement (and so many others) its raison d'être, the purpose it can serve -- and exploit.

The penultimate scene has Dodd's wife excoriate Freddie and then leave the two men alone in a manor house salon of considerable grandeur. Dodd, still prosperous and dapper, wants to rekindle their broken attachment and help Freddie, physically wasted and emotionally empty, recover a life before he comes to his end on this earth. Here is where we witness the dénouement between who is master and who is free of any master. Here is where we listen to Dodd croon, lovingly to Freddie, the tune "Slow Boat to China": "I'd love to get you ... on a slow boat to China ... all to myself alone."

This is not a feel-good movie. But it is a master class in acting. It is a haunting fictional story that is all too true. As with great writing, it takes us into the labyrinth of human nature, rife with emotional hunger, desperation and rage. When that happens, it is not only the characters on the page or screen who agonize. We, too, also gnaw with the pain that is uniquely human.


Dr. Sederer's book for families who have a member with a mental illness, The Family Guide to Mental Health Care, will be published by WW Norton in the spring of 2013.

The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.

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