‘I just want to tell you that I don’t consider that we’re dealing with a cult,’ sighed director Paul Thomas Anderson at a press conference for his latest film, The Master. You can’t blame him for sounding weary; he’s probably sick and tired of fielding questions about whether or not The Master is, as has been posited, based on Scientology. Still, there’s no need for the director to protest so much…or protest at all, in fact. Anyone with half a cerebellum can see that the film is clearly based on the troubled, and troubling, organisation.
Set in the wake of the Second World War, The Master initially concerns itself with servicemen Freddie Quell’s attempts at integrating back into normal life. It is a struggle, however – Freddie, played with genuine unpredictability by Joaquin Phoenix, is a real hothead, unable to keep himself out of trouble. All seems lost until he serendipitously stumbles across a luxurious yacht and, with nothing to lose, jumps on board. The following morning, Freddie is introduced to the self-styled ‘commander’ – one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of The Cause who decides, for reasons never really made clear, to take Freddie under his wing.
The resemblances between The Cause and Scientology are clear; both believe that our souls are merely housed by our bodies, and that ‘we record everything through all lifetimes’. The Cause, too, promotes ‘processing’ a means of cleansing or exorcising past transgressions, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the Scientology practice of auditing. And, like Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Lancaster Dodd is an awful writer.
Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly screened The Master, ahead of the film’s release, for Tom Cruise (arguably the world’s most famous Scientologist) whom he previously directed in Magnolia. Oh, to be a fly on the wall of that screening room. According to Thomas Anderson, Cruise was ‘cool’ with the film, although other sources suggest that certain scenes raised the actor’s hackles – perhaps the part where Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons) claims that his Dad is making up The Cause as he goes along?
However, while The Cause does bear undeniable similarities to Scientology, the film is not about the genesis of a cult. Rather, The Master is a character piece exploring the relationship between Quell and Dodd. Hoffman and Phoenix are never less than compelling in the lead roles – it is a thrill to see these two greats go toe to toe on the big screen. Hoffman, as the florid and moustachioed leader, exudes such charisma that you understand why he inspires his zealous, devoted acolytes, when it does really seem like he’s making it up as he does along. Phoenix, too, excels in a highly-charged role that could have been excruciatingly hammy Oscar-bait in a lesser actor’s hands. He looks the part in his 1950’s garb too, like a chewed up and spat out James Stewart. Quell and Dodd’s relationship is not easy to pin down, however – it is part teacher/pupil, part master/student, part father/son, and at times somewhat homoerotic (witness their energetic grappling on the front porch in one particular scene). And, as The Master is character based, rather than plot based, the film sags somewhat towards the end.
So, The Master is not an expose of the nefarious goings on behind the closed doors of Scientology HQ; Thomas Anderson is far too classy a director for that. However, despite the occasional lack of forward momentum in this character piece, The Master is never less than compelling, in part because of its sheer beauty. With a lush cinematography that recalls the heyday of the 1950’s melodrama, it is one of the most visually arresting films in recent years. Even Tom Cruise would have to agree with that.