Most debate surrounding The Master concerns how much it fictionalizes Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Director Paul Thomas Anderson has fashioned screenplays inspired by real people before — Boogie Nights was clumsily cribbed from the life of John Holmes — but looking for comparisons between Hubbard and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd may be missing the intent. What Anderson may have done instead is divide the Hubbard inspiration into two characters — Lancaster and Joaquin Phoenix’s troubled, violent drifter Freddie — in order to reach insights about the film’s time period that a straight biopic wouldn’t allow.
That, or he was the type of kid who wrote great term papers based on intuition and hoped nobody would check his documentations. Anderson’s method liberates his imagination but sometimes flattens his characters, and some scenes awkwardly connect dots rather than move the story arc forward. Often, there just seems like no good reason for Lancaster to take Freddie under his wing. Freddie is portrayed as unstable from the get-go, a naval officer who appears to be going off the deep end as World War II closes. The Navy has reservations about sending him back into society, which are justified when he melts down at his first job as a department store photographer.
Freddie’s odyssey leads him to stow away on a boat chartered for the wedding party of Lancaster’s daughter. Lancaster takes a shine to Freddie after imbibing himself on Freddie’s homemade hooch, and brings him into the world of The Cause. Lancaster’s followers are hooked on his Processing method, in which he lulls people into a relaxed or hyper-focused state before interviewing them extensively about painful incidents in their pasts as well as their possible past lives. It’s made him a controversial figure circa 1950, under attack by “people who are scared, people who are greedy … ex-wives.”
The film feels Steinbeckian, mainly due to a migrant farm scene, until The Cause becomes central to the story. Then the Scientology overtones become obvious. Phoenix gives one of the best performances of his career for the film’s first hour, making Freddie’s weathered face appear to be partially paralyzed due to his nervous disorder, and Hoffman is a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor lists. Those performances are eventually overshadowed by the film’s meandering journey. Anderson masterfully depicts an era and the conditions that led to the birth of Scientology. But in trying to distance himself from his initial inspirations he gets lost in a maze of narrative options.
Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood suffered similar fates. Anderson’s methods beget creative liberty, but relieve him of a lot of responsibility as a storyteller. His films suffer narratively — he’s the Michael Cimino of his time — but still succeed as cinematic achievements. The Master’s main drawback is that Lancaster’s affection for Freddie lacks believability, and the narrative is built on their relationship. If you understand that they are the result of character mitosis, Anderson’s emphasis on time and place over character is far more forgivable.
The Master Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, rated R, 137 mins