Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is both freed and fettered by its inspiration, which is clearly the origin of Scientology orchestrated by self-styled messiah L. Ron Hubbard. Freed since the subject is exceptional for cinema, despite the church's integration into Hollywood culture. Fettered because similarities to reality make it easy to peg The Master simply as "the Scientology movie" while Anderson's achievement is much more than an expose and certainly not amen. The Master feels like few movies have, except the director's own and a few of Stanley Kubrick's, languid as a trance and mesmerizing in its unpredictability. It is an indirect extension of themes from Anderson's There Will Be Blood: a morally corroded man seeking acceptance from a spiritual leader, and symbiotic selfishness under the guise of doing greater good.
Anderson chose Scientology's roots as a template but it could be any religion — holy as Catholicism or secular as Star Trek — inspiring blind devotion for the master, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
It's all snake oil in Anderson's eyes.
Lancaster is founder of the Cause, a charismatic movement in 1950 based on his belief in past lives and extraterrestrial influences. The physical and philosophical resemblances to Hubbard are unmistakable, but Lancaster isn't the fulcrum of the film.
The Master hinges upon Freddie Quell, an unbalanced World War II Navy veteran played by Joaquin Phoenix with astonishing Method intensity. Freddie is a complete derelict: violent, sexually fixated and an alcoholic drinking household cleaners and torpedo fuel. One batch of his homemade hooch may have killed a man, sending Freddie on the run, into the open arms of the Cause.
Freddie's abrasiveness and bootlegging skill intrigues Lancaster, who pulls him close as "my guinea pig and protege." The mannered sophistication of the Cause amuses Freddie, another formality he can disrupt, a free ride to exploit, feeling certain the master in his wisdom will forgive. Invariably he does, envious of Freddie's animalism while his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), grows suspicious.
The relationship between these disparate men, how they view the same Cause as means to different ends, carries cumulative dramatic power.
Phoenix blazes, mouth curled into a perpetual sneer, his gait suggesting a defiant quitter, or perhaps that's brain damage from the hooch. Hoffman burns slowly, ruddy-faced and conniving. Together they form the most electrifying acting duo of the year.
Their crescendo is Lancaster's first "processing" session with Freddie — a freely associated interrogation echoing Scientology's "auditing" — that made me audibly gasp when it ended, stunned by its raw intensity. It's a scene destined for future acting classes, as any of Mihai Malaimare's camera placements and movements will be for aspiring cinematographers.
The aesthetics are so hypnotic — including the precise period detail and Jonny Greenwood's discordant musical score — that any issues with The Master arise only as it ends. Anderson still knows only one way to end a movie, and that's wide open to interpretation. A late suggestion that Lancaster may be romantically attracted to Freddie doesn't satisfactorily explain why he wishes to keep the scoundrel around.
Such questions are troublesome only if you haven't fallen under The Master's meticulously opaque spell, and certainly I did.
This is a rapturous cinematic experience, a spellbinding expression of shrouded ideas and exposed talent, top to bottom.
It is nothing you might expect from a movie inspired by Scientology, and that's just the way Anderson wants it.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.