Only Paul Thomas Anderson knows for sure how closely The Master is based on the early life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
There certainly are similarities among the stories of Hubbard and Lancaster Dodd, the charlatan cult leader in the fascinating drama from the acclaimed director of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, to make it reasonable enough to perceive at least partial influence.
Regardless of any rumored real-life connection, Anderson’s latest is a carefully constructed and quietly powerful character study. Featuring superb performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, it’s a complex and cerebral study of spirituality, sociology, loyalty, and perhaps most importantly, persuasion.
The film takes place in 1950, chronicling a photographer and former World War II seaman named Freddie (Phoenix) who has turned into an alcoholic drifter. He has a chance meeting with Dodd (Hoffman), a charismatic yet calculating intellectual who wrote a book on a religious movement that becomes known as The Cause.
Although details of Dodd’s background are less clear, he and his wife (Amy Adams) gain influence and the congregation grows, along with critics of a movement with connections to hypnotherapy and dubious claims about healing powers. Meanwhile, Freddie’s behavior becomes erratic and the trust between teacher and pupil starts to erode.
The Master is deliberately paced but evocative when it comes to period re-creation. As with his other films, Anderson shows a knack for powerful imagery and rich visual detail.
It essentially boils down to a study of two compelling characters, the leader and the follower, with Anderson working in tandem with his two actors to craft plenty of provocative moments.
Their intimate discussions about philosophy are unsettling in part because the audience knows more than Freddie about his vulnerability. So does Dodd, played with powerful understatement by Hoffman, whose brainwashing techniques seem more motivated by emotional than financial greed.
Phoenix’s character is not conventionally sympathetic or heroic. In fact, he’s more of a scoundrel who’s difficult to root for. Yet the portrayal has plenty of depth, getting beyond the facial expressions, body posture and quirky mannerisms of a troubled and desperate man.
Anderson paints the followers mostly as victims without settling for easy answers or happy endings. The Master might take place more than 60 years ago, but its themes are timeless and its characters have plenty of contemporary resonance.
Rated R, 137 minutes.