Much has been made of ‘The Master’s connections to Scientology, and indeed it was very exciting to first hear that Paul Thomas Anderson was going to be making a film inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Charting the story of a man deciding to start his own self-help movement, then its expansion it to an international religion, in the hands of a director like Anderson, has huge cinematic potential. Many have also been quick to point out that ‘The Master’ has several sources of inspiration, not just Hubbard, but this is a good thing too. Like Anderson’s breakthrough film ‘Boogie Nights’, just took inspiration from the story of porn star John Holmes, it ended up being surely a much more interesting film than had it been a biopic.
However, ‘The Master’ is not the story of ‘The Master’, indeed he doesn’t even appear until a good time into the film.
Instead its focus is on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who we are introduced to as he performs obscene acts with a sand sculpture. He is a seriously unhinged, borderline alcoholic man, who has just been discharged from the navy, and appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He is just the type of directionless man who might be susceptible to joining a cult, and chance leads him to meet Lancaster Dodd (Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new religious movement called ‘The Cause’.
Dodd already being a cult leader by this point adds an air of mystery to him, but also takes away the chance to see the conception and development of ‘The Cause’. We are introduced to him and his world through Quell’s eyes, never really seeing the inner workings of it.
‘The Master’ is not all about passing judgement on ‘the Cause’ either, it shows several sides to it. While Dodd has vocal critics in the film, who suggest that what he is doing is like hypnotism, the system is also shown as appearing to be working for some of his followers.
Anderson employs stark images and long takes but never feels like he is showing off. The photography is undoubtedly gorgeous, but there are times when it can feel Anderson is deliberately making the film inaccessible. Likewise Phoenix’s performance is quite astounding, yet Quell himself barely changes at all and remains someone very difficult to identify with.
‘The Master’ ultimately emerges as a character study of a troubled man who can’t adjust back to society following the war, and interesting as that might be, the story of Lancaster Dodd and ‘The Cause’ is much more so. It contains elements of greatness but regrettably decides to side-line them in favour of its chosen protagonist.