Movie: The Master [spoiler alert]

I watched the 2012 movie “The Master” last night. I was surprised to find that the movie is more than an L. Ron Hubbard story. The protagonist is Freddie Quell, a violent, traumatized, alcoholic WWII veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix in a spellbinding disturbing performance. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a quasi-religious movement known as “The Cause” which closely parallels Scientology. The movie does what movies do best which is to bring a moving experience without pat answers. What I found most interesting is the relationship between Quell and Dodd which invites psychoanalytic interpretation. The film also raises ethical questions about religious leaders who claim cures that they cannot back up. L. Ron Hubbard claimed that Scientology could cure all kinds of diseases. Eventually he had to retreat from open social interaction with his followers because he himself was visibly chronically ill. Quell’s motivation for joining the movement are more obvious than Dodd’s i.e. he needed help to achieve more than marginal social functioning. But, clearly Dodd enjoys the adoration of his followers.

In the end, leader and followers are more alike than one would have guessed. And, despite the hours of “processing” the film suggests that Quell receives, he doesn’t change. As someone who was once a member of a cult, I found the film too good, too true to life to seem like a propaganda piece. It captures a bit of the attraction/repulsion aura that surrounds someone like Dodd/Hubbard.

Hi Felix,

If it is not too personal or redundant could you elaborate on your cult experience?

Thanks Ed

The group is known as The Lord’s Recovery. It’s a worldwide movement. You can look it up online under Living Stream Ministry. I was a member from late 1973 to 1986. I consider it a cult because Witness Lee claimed that he was God’s sole minister of the age. His was the only ministry accepted by the group and he was the group’s highest authority. The group practiced all of the thought reform methods noted by Robert Jay Lifton:
Milieu Control – The control of information and communication.
Mystical Manipulation – The manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated.
Demand for Purity – The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.
Sacred Science – The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.
Loading the Language – The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.
Doctrine over person – The member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.
Dispensing of existence – The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. { This point they practiced in a psycho-social sense only through ostracism. I don’t wish to give the impression that they literally murdered anyone.}

Hi Felix,

Thanks for the answer. I need to think about it.

I am very curious about why and how you became involved. Again I realize that this can be, and maybe even is, embarrassingly personal; but even though it did not happen to me, I feel that I can identify with this.

Thanks for your response.


Unbelievable River Phoenix performance. Everyone else also very good. I agree the relationship was very interesting.

I was 24 years old. I had been a born again Christian for about three years. On the positive side, the local church as it was called seemed to offer the highest level of commitment and spirituality. On the negative side, I was still struggling to establish my identity. I had experimented with psychedelics, my mother had recently died of cancer and my relationship with my father was painful, and I had broken up with my long term girlfriend because she did not share my new found religious conviction. Self consciousness seemed a burden and I sought release from it by immersion in this group.

I agree with all of the above except if was Joaquin not River.

Duh me. Interesting slip. I never thought much of the long deceased River, I mean he was OK. Ah the lines in the mind.

Hi Felix,

I feel that I should offer something personal in return.

In the mid 60’s, 65, 66, & 67, I wanted profoundly to discover and be with God. In the middle of the Minnesota winters during evening hours I would walk about 3 miles to our empty Episcopal church and sit in the choir pews, simply to experience a closeness to God.

My parents thought that I was off doings drugs, and I think that they would have preferred that to being alone at church. At least the drugs would have been a more social experience.