The Master: Neither a Scientology Exposé Nor a Cinema Masterpiece

Admirers of L. Ron Hubbard can relax; fans of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson may be disappointed in his meandering new drama

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The Weinstein Company

Two groups have keenly anticipated Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master, which opens Friday after playing at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. Admirers of Anderson’s last feature, There Will be Blood, who are loud and legion, have been waiting five years for his next masterpiece. The Master‘s ostensible subject — L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Cult Church of Scientology — has also piqued controversy among members. Expecting a denunciation of their founder, Scientologists inundated the film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company, with so many calls, letters and emails that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Harvey Weinstein paid for extra security at the New York City premiere Monday night.

The fans may be disappointed, the Scientologists relieved. The Master is neither a great movie nor, really, a Hubbard exposé. It’s an overlong (2hr. 17min.) study of a drifter in postwar America who joins the retinue of a charismatic spieler with a certain resemblance to Hubbard, as well as to other high-octane peddlers of the good life. And while the movie, the first to be shot in 70mm since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996, is glorious to watch, it brings little coherence or insight to its two main characters — the wastrel Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) or the shaman-showman Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — though it gives the lead performers enough showy scenes that, at Venice, they were jointly awarded the best-actor prize.

(READ: TIME’s Q&A with Joaquin Phoenix)

Freddie, the son of a man who died from drink and a woman in an insane asylum, has every hereditary reason to be sociopathic, and takes every excuse to put his neuroses into action. With a “nervous breakdown” discharge from the Navy after World War II service, he tangles with psychiatrists, then gets a job as a portrait photographer in a department store and picks a fight with a customer, then becomes a migrant worker and poisons a fellow picker with the liquor he brews; its secret ingredient is paint thinner. On the run in 1950, he stows away on the Alethia (Greek for truth or disclosure), a private ship, and is befriended by the “captain,” Dodd, who has hatched a self-help scheme called The Cause. The older man is fascinated by Freddie’s troubled makeup, and invigorated by his potent hootch. With disarming candor, Dodd tells Freddie, ”You’ll be my guinea pig and protégé.”

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of There Will Be Blood by subscribing to TIME)

Describing himself as “a scientist, a connoisseur… a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher but, above all else, a hopelessly inquisitive man,” Dodd bubbles with jolly confidence, not satanic power; in Hoffman’s lovely impersonation he is less Old Nick than Saint Nick. He gives potent secular sermons about “taming the dragon” and, in one enthralling scene, quizzes Freddie on his crimes and insecurities: “Did you ever kill anyone? Did you have sex with a member of your family? Does it bother you how inconsequential you are?” Dodd and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) claim that their “process of dehypnotization” takes the subject “back beyond to the pre-birth era,” that they “record everything through all lifetimes…trillions of years ago” and that hypnosis therapy can cure cancer and speed the world to peace.

(READ: Vanessa Redgrave on Philip Seymour Hoffman in the 2006 TIME 100

All this is a light fictionalizing of Scientology precepts in its Dianetics stage in the 1950s, when Hubbard proposed that childhood traumas began not at the age of two or three but in the womb, when the fetus received hostile “engrams” from its mother’s moods and movements. Some of Dodd’s biography resembles Hubbard’s. A prolific author of pulp fiction, Hubbard saw himself as the adventure hero he put in his books, and he had the personality to convince others of his stature. At any meeting of fantasy writers he was not the greatest talent in the room but surely the largest presence. He used that charisma, and his early articles about Dianetics in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, to launch what would become Scientology.

(READ: Richard Behar’s 1991 cover story on Scientology

But the movie is no Citizen Ron; it’s just not that interested in Dodd’s religion or scam, except as it relates to Freddie. Scientologists might have already inferred that from Anderson’s reply at the Venice festival press conference for the film. Asked if he had previewed The Master for Tom Cruise, a ranking member of the Church and costar of Anderson’s 1999 Magnolia, the director replied, “Yes, I have shown him the film, and yes, we are still friends.”

(READ: Mary and Richard Corliss on this year’s Venice Film Festival)

Another difference: Peggy is as invested in the Cause as her husband, and nearly as mesmerizing. Standing close to Freddie, she asks, “What color are my eyes?” and, when he answers green, tells him, “Turn them blue.” Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) warns Freddie, “He’s making this all up as he goes along,” but the new apostle doesn’t want to believe it; he’s just happy to be with a father figure who doesn’t want to throw a deranged hobo in jail.

This is Anderson’s sixth feature; except for the Adam Sandler project Punch-Drunk Love, each of the writer-director’s films has examined a father-son or mentor-acolyte relationship. Philip Baker Hall schooled John C. Reilly as a Vegas gambler in Hard Eight; porn auteur Burt Reynolds promoted well-hung amateur Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights; TV mogul Jason Robards tried reconnecting with his sex-guru son Tom Cruise in Magnolia; and oil baron Daniel Day-Lewis battled young preacher Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood. Nothing wrong with filmmakers pursuing themes throughout their works; it’s a mark of personal commitment in an industry that distrusts individual identity.

(READ: Schickel on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia)

The problem with The Master is that it doesn’t extend or expand Anderson’s artistic journey. Indeed, the movie violates a cardinal rule of the father-son or master-servant plot: that the acolyte will somehow change his mentor — will either fulfill the older man’s mission (in, say, a zillion buddy-cop movies) or overthrow him (your Oedipus, your Luke Skywalker). Freddie is briefly Dodd’s guinea pig, never his protégé. He would rather be Dodd’s enforcer: he beats up a skeptic and picks a fight with cops, neither of which the Master ordered or profits from. Freddie is not even Dodd’s Frankenstein monster — more his oafish servant Igor, right down to the stooped posture (possibly a symptom of Freddie’s alcoholism). 

After There Will Be Blood, which Anderson loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, some folks suspected that The Master would springboard from Sinclair Lewis’s 1926 novel Elmer Gantry, the story of a drifter — Burt Lancaster, in the smart and zesty 1960 movie version — who enriches the ministry of the Bible-thumping Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and becomes a popular preacher on his own. No such luck. Freddie does not pick up any of Dodd’s tricks, let alone channel the Master’s powers of salesmanship and seduction; and the Cause neither flourishes nor contracts because of Freddie. When his irrelevance to Dodd’s mission becomes obvious, after about an hour, the story flatlines into repetitiveness. Freddie is there, then he’s gone, leaving little significant impact on the movement or the movie.

(READ: Corliss’s tribute to Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry)

Apparently determined to rewrite 2,500 years of dramatic literature, Anderson ignores another cardinal tenet: that a character’s early preoccupations will bear verdant or evil fruit later in the story. Freddie’s obsession is sex. On a Pacific beach, he humps the figure of a woman that other sailors have sculpted in the sand (an image repeated throughout the film). Given a Rorschach test, he identifies every image as male or female genitalia. And in his job as portrait photographer he has a quickie in his lab with another employee. Yet when Freddie enters the Cause, apart from a crudely drawn invitation to sex early on, he sparks little sexual mischief, even ignoring a woman’s hand as it tipfingers toward his crotch. Either the satyr has been neutered or Anderson lost track of what the first part of The Master was about.

That opening 20 mins. or so sings and stings with promise. The first image, a shot of the churning blue ocean seen from the stern of a Navy ship, portends a God’s-eye view of human fallibility. (Top marks to cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., on loan to Anderson from Francis Coppola’s recent indie efforts, to production designers Jack Fisk and David Crank and to composer Jonny Greenwood for a score that variously looms, swoons and explodes.) The faces of Freddie’s photo subjects have late-1940s veracity — wonderful casting, couture and coiffure. And in a magnificent pair of tracking shots, Freddie jumps onto the Alethia as it sails under the Golden Gate Bridge into the sunset. Phoenix, back in movies after a four-year layoff and his bizarro performance-art impersonation of a crazed rap artist in the faux-doc I’m Still Here, makes Freddie’s misadventures after his Naval service rancid but rewarding. This early section cues viewers that they will be spending a long time in the company of a severely disturbed character who gets into fascinating scrapes with attractive people.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the Joaquin Phoenix case study I’m Still Here)

But the fascination wears off just as it should be peaking, in Freddie’s involvement in the Cause. The two men bicker — briefly in adjoining jail cells, they trade shouting “F— you!” insults — and, because even an art film needs an action scene, test themselves in a motorcycle contest. Finally, a bit too late in the proceedings, Dodd apostrophizes, “What a horrible young man you are!” Moviegoers may agree: The Master expends all its considerable skill on a portrait of the wrong man — and Anderson, five years on a largely lifeless film. There isn’t much flesh and blood in the movie but, for many viewers, there will be boredom.