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Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master The Weinstein Company

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in the shadow of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’

A story of troubled men takes a new shape under the political veil of 2019

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“… Sam Harris, a neuroscientist; Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital; the commentator and comedian Dave Rubin [...] the evolutionary biologists Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying; Jordan Peterson, the psychologist and best-selling author; the conservative commentators Ben Shapiro and Douglas Murray; Maajid Nawaz, the former Islamist turned anti-extremist activist; and the feminists Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Christina Hoff Sommers.” —Bari Weiss, “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” The New York Times, May 8, 2018

“I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher ... but above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.” —Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in The Master

The Master is a cult movie about a cult leader. Released in 2012, when director Paul Thomas Anderson was riding high on the success of There Will Be Blood, this film about a man whose allegedly forbidden knowledge divided him and his followers from the rest of society was, appropriately, divisive.

“There will be skeptics,” wrote critic A.O. Scott in the New York Times, “but the cult is already forming. Count me in.” The late Roger Ebert counted himself out: “The Master is fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air […] What does it intend to communicate?”

Ebert was part of a minority among critics, albeit a vocal one; the film ranked high on many year-end lists. But viewers at large were by and large baffled. This is a crude method of comparison to be sure, but compare The Master’s 61% audience score on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes — a full 24 points lower than the figure derived from the critics — to There Will Be Blood’s 86% and Boogie Nights’ 89%, both of which are nearly in line with the official critical consensus.

Even as a person who considers The Master to be one of the best movies ever made, I get it, man. The staid pace. The elliptical and uncertain relationship between major sequences, right up until the confounding coda of an ending. The tempestuous but hard-to-pin-down relationship between the title character, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman at his absolute best, and his chief acolyte, played by Joaquin Phoenix at his absolute best. The feeling that the searing commentary on Scientology, the sketchy and often sinister self-help/spiritual movement founded by the Hoffman character’s real-life analogue L. Ron Hubbard, was never quite delivered.

What are we to make of this story? This movie about a movement cobbled together on the fly, providing its adherents with the intellectual and philosophical justification for theft, abuse, hatred of outsiders, and near-orgiastic self-adulation? This film about a charismatic, fraudulent blowhard with delusions of grandeur, flanked by his beautiful, much younger wife and his adult failson, promising to return his followers to a lost state of freedom and grace, inspiring the damaged, involuntarily celibate young man who follows him to ever greater feats of self-deception, idol worship, and even violence? What, in Ebert’s words, does it intend to communicate?

It’s hard to imagine the critic asking that in 2019. It’s hard to picture his “hand clos[ing] on air,” instead of a Make America Great Again hat. Right now, The Master communicates the discourse of right-wing edgelords everywhere, and the gilded god-emperor they serve.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, posing for a photo in The Master The Weinstein Company

The Master was created with the founder of Scientology in mind. Hoffman’s fast-talking, boat-loving, deeply paranoid guru; his movement, “The Cause”; and its bible, The Split Saber are pretty much a one-to-one with Hubbard, Scientology, and Dianetics. From today’s standpoint, comparisons between Hubbard and Donald Trump — even physical ones — are just as easy to draw. As a work of fiction, The Master is able to dramatize the processes at work behind all three movements, the two real ones and the one that’s fictional, allowing us to see what they share.

Mainly, fucked-up young men looking for direction and answers. Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is a World War II veteran with a drinking problem so severe it nearly beggars belief. The ostensible love of his life is an underage girl. His explosive, violent temper ruins a budding relationship with a coworker. In one scene he simply sits and, seemingly involuntarily, imagines every woman in the room nude. He quite literally stumbles into Dodd’s world — a yacht whose owner will later bring Dodd up on fraud charges — while hiding from the consequences of his own actions, namely poisoning and possibly killing a migrant worker who, he says in a sort of oedipal explanation, looks like his father.

In Lancaster Dodd, Freddie finds temporary safety and guidance. Here is a man with an impressive list of credentials, most of them bunkum, and few of them relevant to the advice he purports to give and the science-fictional basis (time travel, past lives, an entire secret history of the world) from which it is derived. He has a formal process, literally called “processing,” for analyzing the people who place their lives in his hands. He presents his clique as joyous free-thinkers, sailing through a world of hostile unbelievers who must be kept at bay or shouted down. (“If you already know the answers to your questions,” Dodd spits at a doubter in one of the film’s most famous scenes, “then why ask, pig fuck?”)

If you’re an outcast like Freddie, a man who feels he has no place in the world and no connections to other people, why wouldn’t you be drawn to this plug-and-play worldview?

The same, sadly, can be said for many young men today, drawn like moths to a flame provided by Trump, or Jordan Peterson, or any of the fellow-traveling members of the “intellectual dark web.”

With their impressive-sounding mix-and-match credentials in tow, and amplified by everyone from The New York Times’ op-ed columnist Bari Weiss to comedian-turned-podcaster Joe Rogan to the almighty YouTube algorithm, these figures all provide the Freddie Quells of the real world with a similar message: Despite everything you’ve heard, despite everything you may believe about yourself, you are special. You have the power within you to realize your incredible potential. I will guide you along the way. I will gird you for battle against those who despise you for the truths you are unafraid to hear and repeat.

Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) processes Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) while smoking a cigarette in a key scene from The Master The Weinstein Company

But MAGA, the IDW, and other far-right and formerly fringe belief systems have something going for them that Dodd does not: plausible deniability. Much of The Master’s tension stems from Freddie’s inability to behave himself for very long. His addictions are too powerful, his tendency toward self-sabotage too strong.

Occasionally this can be harnessed, as when Freddie takes point in assaulting the man who dared question his commander. “Naughty boy, OK?” Dodd tut-tuts when he gets wind of what happened. “You are a mischief. A horrible young man, you are.” Dodd’s wife and minder, Elizabeth (Amy Adams, ferocious and oddly underrated), has a different take: “He’s a drunk, and he’s dangerous, and he will be our undoing if we continue to have him here.”

In the real world, there are entire subreddits and chan boards and ersatz paramilitaries for such men. The Proud Boys are just an adjective away from Dodd’s “naughty boy” label.

In the recesses of the internet, on the streets of Charlottesville and Portland, in the red-capped, Q-shirted audience of Trump rallies, and at the center of the mass shootings inspired by all of the above, they can cut loose with the racism, misogyny, and calls for violence that the classy end of the discourse gussies up with talk of preserving Western civilization, masculinity, and other constructs. There’s no need to worry about how any of this makes the Master look: In most cases they’re at a great remove from the center of power, if not the structures underpinning it, and at any rate he has no reputation to care about, nor interest in doing so if he had one.

Which leads us to the big difference between The Master and reality. Lancaster Dodd knows, on some level, that he is a fraud, that he can’t fix anyone. He needs Freddie Quell around because he needs to believe he can fix him. (“If we are not helping him, then it is we who have failed him,” he tells his skeptical inner circle.) Freddie knows, on some level, that he is broken, that he can’t be fixed. He needs to be around Lancaster because he needs to believe he can be fixed. (“Perhaps he’s past help,” responds Elizabeth, chief member of that skeptical inner circle.)

It is impossible to know whether Trump or any of the Intellectual Dark Web thought magnates self-tasked with providing a “we’re just speaking truth to power” backdrop for the president’s modern Nuremberg rallies experience self-doubt of this sort, or use their followers for compensation of this kind. (It’s a bit easier to spot the brokenness and hope for fulfillment of the followers.) Perhaps it comes out in Trump’s plaintive, literal cry that he wishes he could be a nicer guy in public before his keepers shut the interview down. Perhaps it’s in Jordan Peterson’s weirdly masochistic habits, like consuming only meat and water or surrounding himself with leftist art he hates and fears.

But it’s distressingly easier to imagine these figures as Dodd at the very end of the film, rich and secure in a palatial estate, serenading Freddie one last time before cutting him loose for good. No more fleeing the bill for damaged party boats for him. No more fretting about those he cannot help. He’s constructed a world of his own, with his family’s support, where supplicants seek counsel — or simply to bask in the glory of a man who’s remade reality in his own phony image.

Sean T. Collins has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Esquire, and Vulture. He and his partner, the cartoonist Julia Gfrörer, are the co-editors of the art and comics anthology Mirror Mirror II. They live with their children on Long Island.