“The Master”: The Inside Story of L. Ron Hubbard and How He Started the Cult of Scientology
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At any rate, at one point when the pompous, debonair Dodd accuses Freddie of being like a fearful animal that eats its own excrement, both we and Freddie are hit as with a bucket of cold sea water: That is exactly what he’s like, and exactly what we’re all like in our worst moments of bitter self-indulgence. As for Hoffman, if there’s an Oscar nomination in this movie, it should surely be his. He nails the grandiosity, the small-minded vanity, the autodidact pseudo-learning and the salesman’s charm of this absolutely-not-like-L.-Ron-Hubbard character beautifully. When asked by Freddie, during their first meeting, what he does, Dodd replies with an air of satisfied mystery, “I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher.” His massive second tome, “The Split Saber,” is subtitled “as a gift to Homo Sapiens.” (Hubbard too claimed to be a doctor and a nuclear physicist at various times, although his only known degree came from an unaccredited mail order “university.”)
But if the portrayal of Dodd is somewhat ungenerous, it’s not altogether unfair or one-sided. As the New Republic wrote on the original publication of “Dianetics” in 1950, Hubbard’s approach was a “bold and immodest mixture of complete nonsense and perfectly reasonable common sense.” You don’t have to swallow the ludicrous trillion-year back-story of Scientology (which is pretty closely echoed by Dodd in the film) to accept the possibility that Hubbard’s brand of pop psychology has helped some people to lead happier lives. On its most basic level, “The Master” is a primordial myth about a man seeking his lost father (Freddie’s dad, we learn, died long ago) and a father seeking his lost son (Dodd’s own son has rejected him, as indeed did Hubbard’s eldest). If such alliances between life-hardened guys rarely work out in the long haul, they can certainly provide succor for a while.
So much of “The Master” is about the faces of Phoenix and Hoffman — their tense, coded conversations, which seem to coast above bottomless pits of grief — and the film’s extraordinary technical merits – not just Malaimare’s strange, empty frames but Jonny Greenwood’s spare, modernist-classical score – that it’s easy to overlook the rest of the cast entirely. Amy Adams is sensational in an undercooked role as Dodd’s ferocious wife Peggy, who seems to be a ladylike supporting figure but is really the force behind the throne. (Almost alone among the details in “The Master,” this seems to have no cognate in Hubbard’s biography.)
There are hints of an erotic relationship between Freddie and Dodd’s daughter (Ambyr Childers) and a not-too-veiled suggestion that Dodd’s paternal yearnings for Freddie are complicated by other desires. But at the risk of issuing a spoiler of sorts, beyond a bewildering point-of-view sequence when Freddie imagines that all the women at a Philadelphia cocktail party are naked, this is a film suffused with sexual desire that has no sex in it. If you look at “The Master” through the lens of Paul Thomas Anderson’s body of work, this is a prelude to the world of “Boogie Nights,” a disordered America where nobody was getting any that led straight to the disordered America where everybody was getting too much.