In December of 2009, word got out that Paul Thomas Anderson was developing a film inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for shit to hit the fan. The film was immediately dumped by The Weinstein Company and Universal, allegedly due to problems with the script. Luckily, the film secured funding by way of Megan Ellison, a computer technology heiress who’s spent the past few years investing in several fascinating film projects through her Annapurna Pictures shingle. With her backing, the Weinsteins came back on board and The Master eventually came to theaters. But the controversy remains.

A lot of ink has been spilled over this film’s alleged connection to Scientology. I imagine this is partly because Scientology is a very controversial subject to begin with, and partly because those who practice it are so famously litigious that it’s rare for anyone in Hollywood to publicly stand against them. In fact, Scientology is so unpopular with the mainstream that it’s rare for anyone in Hollywood to publicly stand in favor of it.

Of course, all of this is completely beside the point. As anyone who’s seen the film can tell you, this whole controversy is about absolutely nothing.

To be fair, there are some similarities between Scientology and the film’s fictional religion (called “The Cause”). Both are derived from the writings of a single charismatic individual, both involve past lives and emotional impurities of the body, both involve various procedures and treatments designed to bring the participant to a higher state of spiritual being, and both are allegedly based on science and fact despite the total lack of objective proof to back up their claims. Moreover, The Cause is very much like Scientology and countless other cults in its use of mental regression, hypnosis, and other such psychological tricks.

However, something that sets The Cause apart from any other cult (including Scientology) is that there’s no monetary aspect. Aside from book sales, the film makes no mention of membership fees, tithing, or any other source of revenue. This begs the question of what Lancaster Dodd (The Cause’s leader, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) gets out of all this if he’s making the whole thing up.

Also, there aren’t any aliens in Dodd’s theology. Make of that what you will.

Getting back to my original point, it’s obvious that this film was never meant to be a biopic of L. Ron Hubbard, nor was it meant to be a film made in praise or in rejection of Scientology. No, this film had much bigger fish to fry.

Watching the film, it’s patently obvious that the basic framework of Scientology was used as a starting point for a meditation on religion in the modern era. The movie isn’t interested in discrediting cults, but instead asks why someone would join one. In this case, the answer is a simple one: Dodd’s followers are just looking for the great answers to the great questions (why we’re here, what waits for us after death, etc.). In fact, after watching the film, I think Dodd himself is sincerely interested in finding those answers as well.

But why start a new religion instead of going to one of the many pre-existing ones? The film never addresses this point, but I’m guessing it’s precisely because the older religions are old. In the past few millennia, we’ve seen countless scientific breakthroughs to help explain life, the universe, and everything. The world has changed, and religion — for the most part — hasn’t changed with it. Therefore, if a new religion is going to survive at all, it must disguise itself in the trappings of a more scientific and enlightened time.

Anyway, I suppose I’ve gone on long enough. Let’s move on to the film itself, shall we?

This is the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). He’s a sailor in the US Navy, and we meet him just before the Japanese surrender at the end of WWII. Yet even before Freddie goes off into civilian life, we can see that this guy is badly damaged. He’ll screw absolutely anything with a pulse (or anything inanimate that even looks like a woman), he’s prone to random outbursts of violence, and he has a gift for making alcoholic cocktails out of whatever chemicals are in reach. It’s hard to say if the guy is suffering from PTSD, alcoholism, inherited psychosis, or all of the above. In any case, something is seriously wrong with Freddie. The guy is all id, without a single thought in his head to control his destructive tendencies.

Then, through a stroke of dumb luck, Freddie’s path crosses that of Lancaster Dodd. Freddie is taken in by Dodd and his family, and eventually tries his hand at one of Dodd’s “processing” sessions. This leads to an utterly fascinating sequence in which Freddie is forced to confront his inner demons. At that exact moment, Freddie becomes one of Dodd’s most ardent followers.

At this point, it’s worth remembering that Freddie is a deeply damaged individual with a deep subconscious need for redemption and a totally empty noggin. So of course Dodd has absolutely no difficulty indoctrinating him. Even so, Freddie is so unpredictable, so violent, so addicted to his own self-destruction, and so utterly stupid that changing his ways takes a lot of time and effort. Of course, it doesn’t help that Dodd takes a liking to Freddie’s homebrews, which does nothing to curb the latter’s alcoholism.

Several times in the film, the characters are left to wonder if Freddie is beyond their help. After the party scene in which Fred gets so intoxicated that every woman in sight appears naked to him, it’s hard to argue the point. Indirectly, this leads to another fascinating theme of the movie: The conflict between religion’s redemptive power and its limiting influence.

Freddie does indeed grow as a person through the course of this film, and a lot of that has to do with Dodd’s help. But at some point, Freddie (and the audience, for that matter) has to ask if the cult is holding him back. Maybe it’s possible that he’s outgrown the cult. Maybe he’s reached a point where he can find inner peace without the “processing” sessions. Of course, it’s equally possible that Freddie is so far gone that he’s incapable of learning anything that didn’t come from Dodd’s typewriter. Either way, it’s some great character drama. The bottom line is that Freddie has to choose at some point in the film, and that choice requires a degree of independent thought that he didn’t have at the start of the film. Like I said, character development.

Moving on, let’s talk about Lancaster Dodd. It’s very important to note that the film never portrays him as evil or slimy, but he’s hardly portrayed as virtuous or infallible either. As I’ve said before, he’s simply a man trying to figure out the big questions in life. Then he found the answers (or so he thought) and proceeded to share them with the world. As a direct result, he came to be treated by his followers and detractors alike as some kind of prophet. And maybe at some point, Dodd came to believe his own hype. Yet there are so many times in this movie, particularly going into the second act, when it becomes clear that Dodd is no divine being. He’s just a man. For all his intelligence and charisma, he’s only a mortal. We get to see Dodd’s moments of frailty and doubt, even if no one else does.

Dodd’s wife is another character worthy of note. In every possible way, Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) is truly Lancaster’s better half. Publicly, she plays an active supporting role in promoting The Cause, and she’s scarcely seen away from her husband’s side. In private, she’s probably more committed to The Cause than Lancaster himself. She’s just as blindly devoted as Freddie, but with a great deal of intelligence and ambition to go with that fanaticism. Basically, it’s made obvious with every interaction between them that Peggy and Lancaster would be totally lost without each other.

All three of these lead performances are phenomenal. Joaquin Phoenix does a remarkable job at playing insanity, and it certainly helps that he came to the role with a bottomless reservoir of energy. Couple that with a character who’s dangerously unpredictable, and you’ve got a performance that’s enthralling to watch. Meanwhile, Philip Seymour Hoffman looks like he’s having the time of his life. This is a wonderfully meaty role, loaded with moments of pathos and good humor, to say nothing of all the character’s many psychological layers. This is a plum role for such a seasoned actor, and Hoffman is making the most of it. Amy Adams doesn’t get quite as much screen time as I might have liked, but damned if she doesn’t make every moment count.

Visually, the movie is exquisite. The shot compositions are absolutely masterful from start to finish, and there are some gorgeous motifs at play here as well (water is easily the most prominent). That said, I understand that some select theaters are showing this film in 70mm, and I can’t comprehend that. I saw this movie in a standard theater, and brother, that was powerful enough. Seems to me like all the close-ups would get overwhelming on an IMAX screen.

Though the screenplay is generally wonderful in its dialogue and thematic material, there are some minor flaws. One example is provided by Dodd’s son (Val, played by Jesse Plemons). In one scene, he’s openly questioning his father’s ideology. Then he disappears for something like half the movie, only to show up later on, happily in his dad’s service. When I saw that, I felt like I had missed a scene somewhere. The last third or so is loaded with such moments when I couldn’t understand the characters’ motivations or actions. I lost the thread of the narrative somewhere, and I’m not sure I ever got it back.

The Master is a challenging movie. It can be slow, it can be confusing, but it is never, ever boring. Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is absolutely sterling, Joaquin Phoenix brings the house down with his performance, and all of the characters are fascinating to watch. The film also serves as a very interesting treatise on the subject of faith and prophets in the post-nuclear age.

This film is easily worth a recommendation just for the sheer craftsmanship on display. Additionally, whether you like the film or hate it, I can guarantee you’ll leave the theater with something to think about.

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