The artists who gave us The Master have downplayed any connection between their much anticipated film and the Church of Scientology.
"It's not the L. Ron Hubbard story," lead actor Philip Seymour Hoffman told Entertainment Weekly, referring to Scientology's founder.
Director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson says there are "similarities" to the church's early 1950s beginnings, but they merely provide a "backdrop" for his tale about two very different men who cross paths in post-World War II America.
Their comments suggest a muted, back-burner treatment of the endlessly controversial church. But don't be fooled.
Though no one in the film utters the word Scientology, The Master is thoroughly infused with allusions to Scientological beliefs, concepts and lingo. At certain moments, its visuals, characters and plot twists seem ripped from the church's history books.
To have captured the subject with such detail and nuance, the creative minds that shaped this film would need more than a casual knowledge of Scientology.
Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a spiritual healing movement called the Cause. He befriends the erratic and alcoholic Freddie Quell, a Navy veteran emotionally ravaged by war and family dysfunction, played by Joaquin Phoenix.
They meet in 1950, after Dodd has published his first book, Cause, which leads him around the country to lecture and demonstrate his methods. That's pretty much how Hubbard's life unfolded after he published Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health in 1950.
The Cause seeks to rid people of negative emotions and impulses and thereby save mankind. Followers submit to "processing" wherein they are coaxed to recall their pasts, including past lives, in search of the troubling memories that may be the root of their problems. These are Scientology notions through and through.
Absent in the movie is Scientology's e-meter, the electrical device that is said to aid the counseling process by identifying the body's unseen reactions to stirred up memories. The Cause aims to work its magic by talk only.
The word "cause," by the way, is a cornerstone term in Scientology. Members strive to be "cause" or "at cause" in life, able to master their emotions and control events around them. Dodd likens a person's demons to a dragon that can be tamed "on command."
He labels Quell as "aberrated," an oft-used word in Scientology to describe someone who is irrational and undirected.
Quell submits to processing. But when his odd ways continue, Dodd and his followers redouble their efforts using other methods that also track closely with Scientology.
Under Dodd's direction, Quell sits face-to-face with Dodd's son-in-law Clark while Clark yells insults. The drill is done repeatedly until Quell can handle the verbal onslaught calmly and without blinking. This closely resembles Scientology's "training routines," which are said to improve communication and prepare members for the task of delivering counseling to others.
Dodd also directs Quell to repeatedly walk from a wall to a window, touching each one as he goes and, with eyes closed, describing what he sees and feels. It is a nod to an introductory process in Scientology called "objectives," said to help people take attention off themselves and get in better communication with their immediate environment.
Beyond these and other details of Scientology practice and culture, The Master presents scenes that for any member or student of Scientology will conjure sepia toned visions of Hubbard back in the day.
We see Dodd's devotees listening to his lectures on reel-to-reel tapes. With an audience watching, a woman lies on a couch as Dodd harvests her memories — one in which her spirit inhabits a man in a previous life, another of her parents contemplating sex while she's in the womb.
We see Dodd mug for portraits in full cowboy dress and as the dashing writer, a quill pen in hand — vintage Hubbard.
As his movement matures, Dodd moves to Phoenix (just as Hubbard did) then to a big country manor in England (just as Hubbard did). In later years, he surrounds himself, as did Hubbard, with staffers in blue military style uniforms.
We hear Dodd's wife, played by Amy Adams, allude to Hubbard's religious order, the Sea Org. She scolds Quell: "This is something you do for a billion years or not at all."
Hoffman's portrayal of Dodd is uncannily reminiscent of Hubbard, right down to the portly founder's throaty voice, his hale and hearty manner, his love for all things nautical, even the corny jokes he told in his lectures.
Early in the film, Dodd describes himself to Quell: "I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all a man." It is very much like the church's portrayal of Hubbard as a man of science and an explorer, a philosopher and an artist.
The Master also depicts some of the characters who populated Hubbard's life and filled his church — from true believers, to doubters deciding to hang around, to damaged souls who cut and run.
Adams' character is named Peggy, who seems either a composite of Hubbard's three wives or a representation of the last one, Mary Sue. Peggy wields significant power in the organization, much like Mary Sue.
Also making an appearance is Dodd's son, Val, who shares doubts about his father with Quell: "He's making all this up as he goes along. You don't see that?" Here, it is not hard to make the connection to the real-life L. Ron Hubbard Jr., who changed his name to Ron DeWolfe and later testified against his father, calling him a fraud who based his work not on research, as he claimed, but on "his imagination."
Rounding out the string of familiar Scientology themes, Dodd is confronted by charges that he is a cult leader and Peggy responds with this advice: "The only way to defend ourselves is to attack."
Overall, these filmmakers treat Scientology as the complicated subject that it is.
In one of The Master's most nuanced and revelatory moments, Dodd exposes Quell to processing for the first time, drilling him with questions about his life and his thoughts. When it ends, Quell begs for more and Dodd obliges.
The audience hears Quell reveal the unspeakable tragedies that have made his life such a wreck, and this unburdening gives him great relief. A tear glides down his nose.
Current Scientologists never speak of this moment with reporters, who are generally considered enemies of the church. But former church members, free to share, describe it as a moment of truth, a catharsis so seductive they decided to give Scientology a try.
Joe Childs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at email@example.com.