It's doubtful writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson was looking to raise the litigious ire of the Church of Scientology with this story prominently featuring a bogus prophet clearly modelled after Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
As The Master unreels, it is clear Anderson is not terribly interested in the specifics of that religion as he is in the loaded dynamic between the leader and the follower, the would-be prophet and the would-be apostle.
In the latter capacity, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is presented in the film's opening scenes as a profoundly lost soul. At the end of the Second World War, the damaged Freddie leaves the navy and drifts through a rootless civilian life. He doesn't stick with anything for too long, stymied by his natural tendency to anti-social behaviour and a penchant for brewing his own toxic moonshine from whatever fluids are close to hand.
On the lam from a misadventure, Freddie stows away on a passing ship bound for New York City under the benign command of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), evidently some kind of alpha-academic who introduces himself as a "writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher" with a ripe sense of self reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote's calling card: "Genius."
"But above all, I am a man."
The two men bond over Freddie's home brew, but their relationship quickly transmogrifies as Dodd employs his impressive hypnotic wiles to seduce Freddie to "The Cause," Dodd's all-inclusive name for his pseudo-scientific cult.
The film's tension is not in its plot, which meanders, but in these characters. Dodd's credo, which never fails to flatter the rich matrons he courts as patrons, is that humans are not part of the animal world, but are spiritual beings. But Dodd himself can't help but label Freddie a "silly, silly animal" when his troublesome convert reverts to self-gratifying behaviours (which he does frequently).
For his part, Freddie displays loyalty for Dodd, the one man who seems to consider him a worthy human being. But Freddie's loyalty is animal loyalty; he physically lashes out at any skeptic who professes doubt for The Cause, even if Freddie is himself too disturbed or too thick to grasp its tenets.
It must be said Phoenix occupies this character with more conviction than he did the character of Joaquin Phoenix in the pseudo-doc I'm Still Here. The actor either starved or fretted his body to something scrawny and feral. Note how he holds his arms pulled back, suggesting a starved, flightless bird. It's a great performance.
Hoffman matches him with acting that is as studied and controlled as Phoenix's is intuitive and raw. The performances yield a beautiful harmony, particularly in a scene in which the two men find themselves in adjoining jail cells, acting according to their opposite instincts.
Also notable is Amy Adams, once a trilling Disney princess in Enchanted, showing the steel behind those baby blues as Dodd's fiercely calculating wife.
As in Anderson's film There Will Be Blood, there is some strange, enigmatic content in this movie, especially in the film's final encounter between Dodd and Freddie. Take it however you like, it's the happiest ending you'll ever get in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Grant Park, Polo Park
4 stars out of five