THE MASTER TRAILER: Selling a tortured bromance and sidestepping the Scientology controversy

I’ve been itching to see the film since I first learned of the production and its promotion (via a 3-4 minute tease) at Cannes. I admire Paul Thomas Anderson‘s work and am fascinated by Scientology (which, although I have no admiration for its doctrine, practice or secrecy, is, I freely confess, an exemplary neighbor: I live in the heart of Hollywood, where they own much of the best buildings on Hollywood Boulevard. They keep their real estate beautifully and since their comings and goings are silent, invisible and mysterious, they contribute only negligibly to congestion.)

But enough about my proximity to the proximite subject of Mr. Anderson’s latest film (according to reviews and publicity, it is a fictional portrait of a period in the life of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology); let’s look at the trailer.

Talent, provenance, character, story, visual art and cinematic virtuosity are the chief appeals of this trailer which highlights the gorgeous cinematography and period-evocative production characteristic of Anderson’s best work. Joaquin Phoenix, returning after a premature retirement from the movie, is Freddie Quell, a troubled, war-scarred veteran and the putative subject of the trailer: he is a problem to be resolved by the plot, an opportunity to be exploited by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Lancaster Dodd (The Master) and a danger to be managed, skirted and left behind by Amy Adams in the role of Peggy Dodd, the Master’s loyal and fiercely protective wife.

Quell has been decommissioned from a military hospital, his mental injuries acknowledged by the authorities if not adequately treated. Dodd takes on Quell as a test case of the therapeutic value of the ideas he is in the process of promulgating and propagating, his recovery or reclamation offering a demonstration of their validity and application.

Peggy is a realist, recognizing Quell’s fascination for her husband and the temptation; Dodd is an idealist and an egoist, convinced he can save and transform this broken man. Quell is tormented and self-destructive, but also charismatic and a feral force of nature. The triangle involves erotics, marital jealousy and protectiveness, as well as the complexities of transference and countertransference familiar to the analytical situation. The connection between Quell and Dodd–erotics sublimated in violence–stands in contrast with Dodd’s relation to his wife, Peggy, who, with her floral, high-necked dresses, tight lips and coiled bun is hardly a figure of sexual attraction or availability.

What the trailer highlights, apart from these conflicts is ACTING (emphasis intended) by Academy Award calibre talents in a film by an acclaimed director and multiple nominee. The controversy that surrounded the making and release of the film, has been relegated to an oblique reference in a passage of dialogue: A invitee to an official function (I don’t recognize the actor or know his role) distinguishes scientific debate from the certainties of the cult. In the next shot, although not contiguous or in response, except that it’s adjacent in the trailer, Adam’s expresses her disdain that yet again her husband is required to “explain” and urges “attack” as the best means of defending his work.

As she says attack, we see Quell knocking open a door and rushing through. Though his adversary or object is unclear, the suggestion is that he is to be used as an instrument of Dodd, his violence marshaled in service to the movement that Dodd is building. This may, of course, be the trailer’s story rather than the film’s. I look forward to finding out. Interestingly, Dodd’s son, Val, (Jesse Plemons) is the voice of explicit skepticism about his father’s philosophy/psychology, insisting to an incredulous and hostile Quell that Dodd is merely “making it all up as he goes along.”

Ultimately, the trailer closes on opposing judgments about the possibility of helping and reclaiming Quell. Dodd asserts that failing to do so reqpresents a failure of his own precept; Peggy supposes that perhaps Quell is “beyond help,” and “insane” as we are left with a final shot of the man in question, turning around and squinting at the camera, shirtless and on the beach, as the 40’s vocal track subsides and a black card with the title comes up. It is yet another of many haunting images, most of Phoenix who has been earning breathless reviews.

Given the recent celebrity stories and scandals surrounding Scientology (re: Mr. Cruise, for example), I find that I’m much more interested in the story that this trailer presents about the film, than I would be about a trailer for a straight biopic on L. Ron or the origins of Scientology. These characters and these stories are distinct from controversy about, prejudice for/against the church, and instead explore a complex and compelling real-world experiment with psychological theory and interpersonal dynamics. Given the acting and directorial talent assembled, it’s a subject I’m eager to see developed.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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