Warning: Review contains some spoilers
I don’t know a whole lot about Scientology aside from what I’ve seen in satirical pieces like South Park’s infamous “Trapped in the Closet” episode and I also don’t know a whole lot about its founder L. Ron Hubbard. What little I had heard about it sounded ridiculous, but as a staunch atheist I’m pretty accustomed to feeling that way about all sorts of religious doctrine. The rest of the world seems to be just as dismissive of the church as I am but they’re objections seem to have less to do with the actual beliefs of the church than the types of people attracted to it and the ways that it chooses to operate. Specifically, it’s the churches secrecy and defensiveness that makes it seem strange and cult-like to the outside public and that’s part of what made director Paul Thomas Anderson’s decision to make a film clearly inspired by the early days of the church seem so bold and dangerous. Just ask the makers of the 2001 film The Profit, a film which to this day hasn’t seen the light of day because of lawsuits from the church of scientology, how tricky it is to deal with this subject matter.
It may be because of this litigiousness that The Master is careful to play the “any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” game. The church/philosophy/self-help method at the center of the story is called “The Cause” rather than Scientolgy, its founder is named Lancaster Dodd rather than L. Ron Hubbard, and the doctrines he describes are superficially similar to but not really the same as the doctrines of Scientology. Paul Thomas Anderson has said clearly that he believes the film should be seen as more than a “scientology movie” and I take him at his word about this, in part because his L. Ron Hubbard stand-in is not the film’s central character. The film’s real protagonist is a man named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who has found himself aimless and volatile after returning home from the Second World War. He essentially has post-traumatic stress disorder which isn’t being dealt with by society and I doubt that it’s a coincidence that Anderson chose to make a film about a man like this in a time when we’re still trying to deal with returning soldiers.
Joaquin Phoenix has a sort of old-school masculine Rock Hudson look to him and he uses that to great effect here. In Freddie Quell he’s created a really fascinating character that seems driven to operate from his Id at all times. When he’s angry he yells and throws punches, he drinks constantly and has little shame about his drunkenness, and he seems to have sex on his mind at all times. He’s unpredictable and a lot of audiences may be uncomfortable with how hard it is to peg this guy down as any one thing. It’s this volatility that fascinates Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman); this is just the sort of man that Dodd’s philosophy/religion was supposed to be able to help. Once the two are finally together it becomes hard to exactly understand how Quell feels about “The Cause.” Does he truly believe in or even understand Dodd’s rather cryptic teachings? Is he simply loyal to Dodd because of his kindness? Or is he a staunch zealot who absolutely wants to help spread the word about “The Cause.”
Though it was clearly inspired by Scientology, the film never delves into what makes that organization so cult-like (namely it’s secrecy and its tendency to seek money from its followers). Consequently I think that “The Cause” is meant to be a stand in for organized religion in general. I doubt that the film would have been all that different if Lancaster Dodd had been based on Jerry Falwell, Sun Myung Moon, or Joseph Smith rather than L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, also dealt with organized religion but that film was all about the way religion deals with business while The Master is more about the relationship between a church (any church) and its followers. There’s a great scene early in the film where a man confronts Dobbs about claims that “The Cause” can help treat leukemia patients and his main concern is that leukemia patients will come to Dobbs rather than seek out proven treatments. This is exactly what happens to Dobbs over the course of the film, but his ailments are psychological rather than physical. This may be why Anderson chose to focus in on Scientology rather than mainstream religion given that it’s Scientology that has a very specific vendetta against psychiatry.
If anything, Quell only gets worse over the course of his time with Dobbs and that’s largely because Dobbs opts to teach Quell about his elaborate doctrines rather than do anything to get to the root of Quell’s actual problems. Quell does become somewhat more presentable to society over the course of his time with Dobbs, which is likely why Dobbs comes to think he’s making progress, but he really isn’t. In this situation, religion proves to be an unnecessary middleman which just gets in the way of any legitimate treatment and when it becomes clear that Quell isn’t going to be the perfect accolade that they want he gets thrown out. The film never turns Dobbs into a charlatan who abuses Quell for profit; instead Dobbs is simply a misguided believer in his own hype. He believes in his methods so much that all he and his disciples can do is blame Quell when “The Cause” fails him. Of course I suspect that opinions will vary about what this film’s true meaning is depending on one’s biases and beliefs. As a non-believing heathen I’m a bit inclined to view it as an attack on the usefulness of religion, others will probably see it differently. It’s apt that an early scene in the film depicts a man taking a Rorschach test.
The Master is probably not as good a film as There Will Be Blood but then again, that’s a hell of a hard act to follow. Anderson’s style here is still certainly bold, but it’s less of a surprise here than it was in his previous film. Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman both give really excellent performances here, but neither quite lives up to Daniel Day-Lewis’ absolute domination of the screen in Anderson’s last film, and the film also doesn’t have There Will Be Blood’s epic visual sweep. Still, giving Paul Thomas Anderson grief for not toping There Will Be Blood is like chiding David Lean for having “only” followed Lawrence of Arabia with Doctor Zhivago. This is a mature film made by a master filmmaker and it’s thematic meaning will be heatedly debated for the rest of the year and for years to come by everyone who loves good cinema.
**** out of Four