Although director Paul Thomas Anderson and his cast continue to stress that their new film The Master is not about Scientology, the repeated references are nearly overwhelming, and about as thinly veiled as a Frederick's of Hollywood negligee.
But ... they're right. The Master is not about Scientology. Deep in its beautiful guts, The Master is about a man trying to better himself — and just about any religion or faith could've served as the vehicle propelling this fascinating film.
It's the end of World War II, and ex-sailor Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a goddamn drunk. And not just a garden-variety alcoholic, but an obliteration boozer who makes his own hooch out of paint-thinner and rubbing alcohol. He's also vengeful, hypersexual, and perhaps (or perhaps not) an involuntary murderer. Something needs to give, and so enters Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), the "master" of a startup religion/self-help cult called "The Cause" (played by Scientology). For Dodd, Quell is the perfect guinea pig: an "animal" who, once his "ancient trauma" is revealed though tests, study, and psychological torture, will hopefully graduate to a higher order of human ... the human we were created to be.
One is tempted to gleefully approach The Master as the cinematic counterpart to a juicy Vanity Fair hit piece — but upon viewing, one quickly realizes that Anderson is reaching for much more. Rather than heaping scorn upon a pseudo-faith, The Master is a gorgeously filmed rumination on human need: the need to be self-aware, the need to be accepted, the need to be loved. As much as drunkard Quell needs to make peace with his past, Dodd needs to be accepted, respected, and appreciated for what he believes is the rescue of the human species. In the end, what each of these characters receives speaks more about humanity and religion than any one-note exposé could ever hope to accomplish.
As for the nuts and bolts of the film, the acting from all parties — not to mention the cinematography — is a thing of sensitive, nuanced beauty. And while there's a certain meandering, elusive quality that could spawn a twinge of mistrust in Anderson's powers, rest assured that each sweeping frame is there for a reason, and The Master is one of those rare films that will have you reflecting on your own self-awareness for days to come.
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