[Pretty much all Spoilers, so only read unless you’re determined to not see it]
It's difficult to write about Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master because the more you consider it the less sure you are of what Anderson was trying to say. To start with the obvious, it's a big, glorious, ambitious film, sure of its own importance and beauty in a way most films can only pretend to be nowadays. In thematic terms, it’s about the clash between disillusionment and the bold spiritual opportunism that sought to fill that void in post-WWII America.
More particularly though, it's about Joaquin Phoenix's aimless and war-traumatized Freddie Quell, and his relationship with Philip Seymour Hoffman's L Ron Hubbard, err, Lancaster Dodd, a gregarious, deeply-charismatic, cult leader. Quell arrives on Dodd’s boat (actually a wealthy benefactor's boat, it later turns out) a violent, stumbling alcoholic stowaway, animalistic qualities that render him unfit for society; but Dodd sees in Quell a “guinea pig,” someone to demonstrate the validity of Dodd’s “processes,” which bear a striking resemblance to Scientology’s “training routines.”
Anderson admits to using the early days Scientology as a backdrop for his story but Scientology is too integral to the story to cheapen its presence as merely a “backdrop.” Anderson not only lifted whole biographical chunks, details and all, but his “Cause” is similar to Scientology both in form and effect. Dodd grills Quell about his past with questions lifted nearly verbatim to Scientology’s OCA ‘Personality Test’:
- Do past failures still worry you?
- Do you make thoughtless remarks?
- Have you ever had sexual relations with a member of your own family?
Quell stammers out answers as tears run down his face–he’s not permitted to blink during the interrogation. Afterward when Dodd asks how he feels Quell is visibly exhilarated at having finally verbalized his horrors (including having killed in war and having had an incestuous relationship with his aunt). Many ex-Scientologists have testified to a similar therapeutic gain from this unburdening of conscience. Then Dodd hints at Scientology’s future beyond the timeframe of his film when he asks Quell if he is “a member of the Ninth Battle Battalion or any other invader force…”, and the question unsurprisingly sails over Quell’s head. The film makes a few other allusions to Hubbard’s forays into space opera but this mostly occurred outside of Anderson’s time frame.
The damaged Quell makes personal progress though the methods clearly frustrate him. In one exercise which extends through multiple scenes he’s instructed to touch the wall, describe it, then walk to the opposite side of the room to touch the window, and describe that, and repeat ad nauseum. This is Anderson’s slightly modified take on Scientology’s “Training Routine 6” in which the initiate is commanded as follows:
“LOOK AT THAT WALL.” “THANK YOU.”
“WALK OVER TO THAT WALL.” “THANK YOU.”
“TOUCH THAT WALL.” “THANK YOU.”
“TURN AROUND.” “THANK YOU.”
Quell struggles with the exercise, mostly failing to make sense of what’s being asked of him but nevertheless executing it dutifully. Only when he’s about to collapse does Dodd step in to “End Process,” and hug the exhausted Quell. As with Scientology’s “training routines” (most often referred to as the TRs), Dodd’s repetitive “processes” are like mental boot camp, where what’s known to be real is stripped away and replaced with self-referential jargon and concepts, rendering that person more functional within the group but more isolated to the outside world.
As Quell begins to exhibit moderate improvement, it’s worth wondering whether Anderson is implicitly endorsing the idea that Scientology “works.” Change is certainly effected within Quell, though it’s difficult to pin down Anderson on anything substantial or definite. The story, told through sometimes dreamy vignettes which often refuse to dovetail, ultimately finds Quell outside the group, though the impetus for Quell’s moving on (or being moved out) is left unclear. One of the final scenes finds Quell in bed with a woman, asking her to keep repeating her full name, as Dodd had once asked of Quell.
If Anderson is sending mixed signals about his feelings on Scientology through the Quell and Dodd relationship, which dominates the film, it’s perhaps more helpful to examine Amy Adams’ “Peggy Dodd,” who is clearly meant to represent Mary Sue Hubbard (Hubbard’s third and final wife), and her relationship to both Dodd and Quell. Adams plays Peggy as the outwardly demure but otherwise ruthless power behind Dodd’s creative throne (and like Hoffman and Phoenix, Adams almost certainly earned herself an Oscar nomination).
Friction reveals itself early on when Peggy tells Quell that Dodd is fascinated with him, as if she can’t quite see it herself. Later she suggests to Dodd that Quell may simply be beyond help, but Dodd’s ego and ambition requires persistence. Peggy finally gets her way in the end when Quell visits Dodd in England, where The Cause had since relocated (just as Hubbard relocated Scientology to the St. Hill Manor in Mid Sussex England in 1959), and tells Quell in no uncertain terms that he’s unwelcome, which Dodd reluctantly understands.
The interactions between Peggy, Dodd, and Quell suggest a view of Scientology by which Dodd represents a hopeful, almost altruistic yearning to actually accomplish what Scientology purportedly sets out to accomplish–rid the planet of “insanity” (as defined by Scientology) one person at a time. Quell is the insanity that Scientology wants to expunge. And Peggy is the pragmatist–the power-consolidating force (it’s Peggy and not Dodd who utters the Anderson equivalent of the famous Hubbard line, “always attack, never defend”) and it’s Peggy who eventually won and shaped what became of Scientology. Anderson’s film is too amorphous for this simplistic analysis to hold, but to the extent you can read Anderson’s version of Hubbard, through a phenomenal performance by Hoffman, as the idealistic good guy to Mary Sue’s bad cop, such a rendering is too flattering by a truckload, which Anderson would probably realize if he continues where he left off in Russell Miller’s Bare Faced Messiah, the out-of-print book which obviously served as his biographical source material.
I’ll acknowledge that much of my commentary is inherently unfair, as Anderson didn’t set out to make a true-to-life biography of L Ron Hubbard, which, even if Anderson hadn’t gone to great lengths to distance his movie from Scientology, is made clear by the amount of fictional inclusions (e.g., the lead character, Freddie Quell, has no historical analogue). But perhaps it was naive of Anderson, then, to provide so much of Scientology to chew on if it’s something he’d rather not discuss. I mean, if you make a movie about the Indy 500, the topic of cars is going to naturally arise, even if the point of your film was to convey larger truths about ovals. But this is a minor quibble, and in no way inhibited my enjoyment of The Master.