Even if Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master hadn't turned out to be one of 2012's best films—which, spoiler alert, it totally is—there would still be a sense of gratitude among some film fans that they got the chance to see it at all. From the time Anderson announced his proposed follow-up to 2007's There Will Be Blood, the litigious and Hollywood clout-wielding Church of Scientology took preemptive exception to Anderson's fictionalized account of the church's early days, often to a degree that seemed to threaten the film's very existence. Now, finally, the rest of us have a chance to weigh in on whether The Master is really an epic potshot at Scientology.
The short answer is yes; the long answer, not at all. Judging from details big and small within The Master, Anderson is clearly and correctly fascinated by the life of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, the erstwhile pulp writer whose 1950 self-help book Dianetics transformed his psychoanalytic dabbling into a worldwide quasi-religion that counts tens of thousands among its ranks. (Millions, if you ask the church itself.) The fictional outlet for that fascination is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the self-described "writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher" at the head of a spiritual movement referred to simply as the Cause, the specifics of which mirror Scientology closely enough. Much is made of criticisms of Dodd and his Cause being both metaphysically and civilly fraudulent, accusations that still plague Hubbard's church. But audiences leaving The Master won't have any better handle on Scientology than they did walking in, nor hold any new ammunition against it.
That's because The Master isn't about Dodd, or what he believes. It's about what he represents, specifically to a damaged sailor named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who stows away on Dodd's ocean liner and finds himself in thrall to the man his adherents call the Master. There's an off-putting credibility to the way Dodd's "processing" sessions, pairing mental exercises with aggressive introspection, draw truth and relief from Quell's sad, knotted-up mind, and in our empathy for Quell—cemented during their first session, the best-acted duet of 2012—we understand the implications of his catharsis, and others who've come before him. Through his brutish psychoanalysis, Dodd is a master of the human mind, and happens to be around afterward to share a conveniently prepared context for how Quell's brain and spirit have begun to heal themselves. Quell is welcomed into the Cause—and indeed Dodd's own family—and finds himself at odds with what's asked of him, even as he goes to misguided lengths to defend and excuse Dodd's reputation. More than anything else, The Master is an intimate look at what organized religion offers a drifting soul, no matter how mismatched.
It's a brave and heavy thing to take on, executed with astounding taste and insight. As There Will Be Blood suggested, Anderson has ceased mimicking the great filmmakers and joined their ranks in his own right, producing a lyrical, captivating film willing—to paraphrase Dodd's own skeptical son—to define itself as it goes along. There are challenging ideas presented in meticulous 65mm compositions, but The Master is generously crafted, and never pretentious. If there are flaws, in fact, they're only felt because presumably key characters and situations end up leaving no concrete effect on the story, a move that confounds expectations more than the actual nature of the ending. (Though she's around to the end, it's still particularly unfortunate that Dodd's wife, Peggy, isn't given a payoff worthy of Amy Adams' career-best performance.)
Still, it's consistent: The Master isn't really a story, about Scientology or anything else, as much as a dual character study featuring two exceptional actors playing out two crucial archetypes. As Lancaster Dodd, Hoffman dances expertly along the line between charismatic figurehead and self-doubting megalomaniac; as Freddie Quell, Phoenix's unhinged shtick finds grounding in emotional truth. Together they're the two parties involved in a struggle for one soul. Is there anything more dramatic?
Like most great films, The Master will draw a lot of different responses. Some will actively choose between seeing it as anti-religion or just anti-cult, and it may kick off some uncomfortable discussion of where that line is drawn, and how broadly. More interesting to me is an issue the film seems more tight-lipped about: Is Freddie Quell just a weird, troubled war vet, or is he a genuine nut? (Where do we draw that line, for that matter?) For his part, Dodd often seems to think of Quell as nothing so much as a pet, to be scolded for "animal" behavior and praised with a soft "good boy." Is it crazy to want to serve a Master but not be somebody's dog?