If Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was awaited with breathless anticipation by legions of film critics — here, finally, was a new film from the auteur behind 2007’s near-masterpiece There Will Be Blood — it was probably awaited with something more like dread by another influential movieland community: the adherents of the Church of Scientology. The plot of The Master was shrouded in secrecy, but it was rumored to be a thinly veiled portrait of Scientology’s post–World War II origins, with Philip Seymour Hoffman playing a charismatic, cult-founding mountebank with a more-than-coincidental resemblance to the late L. Ron Hubbard.
The rumors were true enough, but Scientologists who slipped into early screenings probably left feeling more relieved than outraged. Like There Will Be Blood, in which Daniel Day-Lewis’s ruthless oilman struggled for, well, mastery with an empire-building young revivalist, Anderson’s film portrays religion almost exclusively in instrumental terms — as a lever for gaining various forms of power, and as a way of imposing a kind of artificial order on the chaos of the world.
But The Master isn’t really an exposé of a religious con man on the make — an Elmer Gantry with auditing instead of faith healing. Its view of religion, while cool and disenchanted, is ultimately somewhat more positive than that. Indeed, there are times when Anderson’s movies almost seem to be making the case for the practical virtues of a cult.
That’s because his main subject is not Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the sleek and charismatic magician who promises wholeness and well-being to adherents of what he’s dubbed “The Cause.” It’s Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a damaged, shell-shocked, drunken ex-Navy man struggling to make his way in the peacetime landscape of the late 1940s. The movie’s opening act follows Freddie as he sabotages himself in love and work alike, and ends up as a drifter along the Southern California coast. Stumbling away from a failed stint as a migrant laborer, he slips on board a large and lit-up yacht, docked and thronged with partygoers. When he awakes the next day, the boat has lifted anchor and taken to the sea, and its commander — Dodd himself — has adopted Freddie as a follower and muse.
What follows is mostly an exploration of a tangled master-acolyte relationship, with Hoffman and Phoenix elbowing the rest of the story to the margins of the screen. We get some sense of the Scientology-esque ideas with which Dodd builds his movement — a blend of talk therapy and hypnosis, gnosticism and intergalactic hoo-hah. We get a fascinating, too-truncated portrait of his family life, with the talented Amy Adams playing against type as his steely, pregnant wife and Jesse Plemons popping up here and there as his disillusioned but still dutiful adult son. We get glimpses of Dodd’s dark side — his anger, his paranoia, his willingness to part fools from their money and women from their virtue.