Is The Master - Paul Thomas Anderson's hauntingly intimate epic - about Scientology? Many people have been focusing on this question, hoping perhaps for a searing, roman à clef takedown of L. Ron Hubbard's movement. It's easy to deduce the inspiration for Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the film's magnetic author-philosopher-guru character. There are clues that The Cause, Dodd's self-made belief system, is a stand-in for Hubbard's Dianetics. While looking for them, you might miss something extraordinary.
There's more to the story of Dodd and his relationship with Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an itinerant World War II veteran who stows away on Dodd's yacht in 1950. Freddie is a profound mess. He drowns his misery in concoctions containing everything from Lysol to paint thinner. The film's brilliant introduction shows that the horrors of war aren't all that wrecked him. He's the kind of "animal" Dodd assures his followers they are not.
Freddie's wildness fascinates Dodd, and the promise of healing fuels Freddie's loyalty to The Cause. Anderson stages a magnificent single-take sequence in which Freddie answers a series of probing, rapid-fire questions about his life. It should be on film school syllabi for decades to come, as a paradigm for providing necessary exposition. Phoenix personifies pure, seething pain.
But Freddie and Dodd aren't necessarily opposites. Brimming with charisma and intensity, Hoffman makes Dodd a convincing object of devotion while offering a glimpse of his ferocious side. There's a terrific, startling scene in which Dodd calls a skeptic a "pig fuck." His rage isn't that of an anxious charlatan; it's that of someone who desperately wants to believe in his own methods.
The Master also illustrates how cults represent symbiosis. Followers need a belief system that gives them purpose, and leaders gain a sense of meaning from their followers. Anderson transforms this relationship into a dysfunctional, codependent love story. Freddie needs answers so badly that he's prepared to beat the crap out of anyone who challenges Dodd; meanwhile, Dodd needs to cure Freddie. If Freddie walks away before the work is done, Dodd could feel extremely betrayed.
So, in a way, The Master is about Scientology. But dwelling on the "what" risks slighting the "how" of Anderson's accomplishments, from the breathtaking sequences of the film's first hour to a subtle subplot involving Freddie's relationship with a teenage girl who, to him, represents normalcy. These moments evoke two nearly perfect performances. Not a second of The Master feels like an assault on any particular belief system. If anything, Anderson is profoundly compassionate toward human nature's wild side, which is often at war with the desire for emotional connections.