In Paul Thomas Anderson's Scientology-inspired movie The Master, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a self-help guru who's in the process of turning his therapeutic practice into a full-fledged spiritual movement. The Master shows us how Hoffman's character creates the mythology that underpins his new faith, even as it explores the confounding love between Hoffman's character and his newest acolyte, a drunken lout played by Joaquin Phoenix.

There are two questions at the center of The Master: Why do these two radically different men need each other? And why does "the Master" need to add so much bunkum about billion-year invasions to an otherwise simple and lucrative "past-life regression" therapy business? Spoilers ahead...

You'll notice that I was careful to say "Scientology-inspired" in the opening sentence — Anderson has said that The Master is partly inspired by the life of L. Ron Hubbard, but it's not based on the genesis of Scientology. Despite major the many, many parallels between Anderson's story and real-life events, it's clear that Anderson is just using Scientology as a jumping-off point for his own weird story about a science-fictiony guru.

Rather, the core of the film is the relationship between the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and the volatile Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) — but through the lens of that relationship, we do gain insight into the relationship between Dodd and his followers, generally. We learn a lot about Dodd's methods for curing people of their trillion-year-old maladies, and we see in the wild, boozing Freddie something that Dodd thinks he needs, something the rest of his obedient sheep don't have.


And meanwhile, a major undercurrent of The Master is the story of building a movement from scratch. The movie begins with Dodd and a ragtag group of family members and attendants traveling around on their boat and staying at people's houses, without any real fixed base of their own. As we follow Dodd, he has his first congress of believers, unveils his detailed theology, and finally takes over a huge manor house in England as his fancy headquarters. (Something Hubbard did in 1959.) Along the way, there are weird missteps, including a night of nude dancing — and, arguably, the recruitment of thugs like Freddie.

And over the course of the film, we see a lot of Dodd's strange methods, including "processing," asking repetitive personal questions over and over — sometimes with odd requirements, like you can't blink or the questions start over from the beginning. Sometimes, Freddie has to sit still without showing any reaction while staring at Dodd's son in law, who's insulting him and baiting him. Freddie has to keep walking into a wall and a window over and over again. And so on. Meanwhile, Dodd's theories about the history of the universe keep getting weirder, to the point where even his own son mutters that the old man is making it up as he goes along.


One of the questions the film dances around is just why the early 1950s, in particular, were such a fertile moment for fantastical teachings like Lancaster Dodd's — was it the jarring transition from World War II to the complacent Eisenhower era? Was it the new sexual repression, leaving some people with a need to find a safe outlet for their libidinal energy? Or something else?

Throughout the film, Dodd keeps wondering where he and Freddie Quell have met before (meaning, in which past life.) And that's just another way of wondering, just why are these two men so drawn to each other? On the surface, Freddie is a hugely damaged basket case, with wartime trauma piled on top of family problems and substance abuse issues, while Lancaster is an urbane raconteur who holds people in his smooth hands.


You can sort of see why Freddie would be drawn to the notion of a therapy that could help him stop being such a drunken, volatile mess. And meanwhile, Dodd needs some muscle to help him deal with his many critics — as he says, "the only way to defend is to attack." But that doesn't explain the affection, the passion even, between the two men. They seem to mirror each other, perhaps because they both have a broken piece, somewhere inside them.

Both Hoffman and Phoenix bring amazing intensity and versatility to their performances — part of why it's so easy to forget about any Scientology parallels is because Freddie and the Master seem like such fully realized fictional characters. Phoenix's face is constantly sporting a lopsided scowl or a twitchy leer, while Hoffman can go from poised charm to venomous shouting with no warning. (Also great: Amy Adams as Dodd's manipulative, protective wife.)

And Anderson's direction is, not surprisingly, gorgeous as well — there are lots of fascinating contrasts and little bits of alienation here. We see lovely shots of huge open landscapes and the vastness of the ocean, contrasted with the claustrophobic drawing rooms and gymnasiums where Lancaster Dodd speaks to his followers. Meanwhile, the soundtrack mixes the kind of dissonant pounding twangs you've heard in the trailer with smooth, crooning early-1950s ballads. There are also a lot of scenes where someone (usually Freddie) is talking to a person who's out of shot, enhancing the sense of alienation and being boxed in by things that are getting on your last nerve.

So what is the broken thing in Freddie and Lancaster that brings them together, and how does it relate to Lancaster's drive to create more and more elaborate gibberish about an "invader force" that gets inside your body? The Master offers few answers, other than the endlessly fascinating interplay between two actors at the top of their game.

And that brings me to my one problem with the film: in the end, it sort of fizzles. The ending is curiously desultory, and it's almost as if Anderson decides to start pulling his punches in the last reel. The film creates these two utterly fascinating characters, and then when it comes to the end, seems uncertain what it wants to say about them. The ending isn't just muted, it leaves you feeling as though the preceding couple hours have been a collection of great incidents, rather than a story. (Plus I couldn't help noticing that some of the most intense emotional moments in the trailer aren't in the finished film, as if there was some last-minute editing. You expect that from big Hollywood films, but not so much with indie auteur movies.)


All in all, though, The Master is worth checking out just to see two fantastically talented actors doing some of their best work, and for the questions it leaves you asking about what these two men reveal about each other. And the portrait of a magnetic weirdo building a church from scratch, out of scraps and lost people, is an indelible one that will make you think about our collective love of science-fictional mythologies in a new, strange fashion.