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“The Master”: The Inside Story of L. Ron Hubbard and How He Started the Cult of Scientology

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix are amazing in the just released film, Paul Thomas Anderson's gorgeous fable.

Deep in the closing credits to Paul Thomas Anderson’s austere and challenging new film  “The Master,” you’ll find some legalistic language of the sort attached to any Hollywood movie, with a peculiar twist of phrase added: “The story and its characters are fictional and the events and actions portrayed do not reflect the actions of  any movement or any living or deceased individuals.” (Emphasis added.) My goodness, what are Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers worried about? Is there some extant organization so thin-skinned and litigious that it could see itself in this fictional portrait of a charismatic 1950s flim-flam man selling a self-help method that combines knockoff Freudian psychology, mysticism and science fiction?

I jest, sort of. But the disclaimer actually holds up, in a funny way. “The Master” is more like an abstract, ominous tone poem about male loneliness in postwar America than a docudrama about Scientology founder and best-selling author  L. Ron Hubbard,even if he’s clearly the inspiration for Lancaster Dodd, the character played here by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Whether or not that’s a good thing I cannot yet be sure; “The Master” is very much the kind of intentionally difficult film that will inspire repeat viewings and heated arguments, at least among a small cadre of adherents. (In this respect and others, Anderson may feel some kinship with Hubbard.) But I can tell you that if you’re expecting a sweeping social portrait of a Hubbard-esque prophet and/or a charlatan and his life and times – something like what French director Olivier Assayas  delivered for the 1970s terrorist Carlos the Jackal – you won’t find that here.

From “Boogie Nights” to  “Magnolia” to “Punch-Drunk Love” to“There Will Be Blood,” Anderson has seemed torn between competing impulses. On one hand, he seems to be one of the last living carriers of a sputtering flame, the vision of American cinema on a grand social-satirical scale handed down from Orson Welles and Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese. On the other hand, Anderson’s work has grown increasingly pictorial, poetic and abstruse, in the mode of Terrence Malick or 1970s European art cinema. I’m not saying those two things are incompatible in aesthetic terms, necessarily, but they’re pretty damn likely to frustrate an audience accustomed to the reassuring beats of conventional drama. “The Master” is often spectacular and never less than handsome, and it has numerous moments of disturbing and almost electrical power. I can’t say, after one viewing, that I found it moving or satisfying as a whole, but I’m also not sure it’s supposed to be. This is an almost apocalyptic tale of thwarted emotion — love cut short — set in a pitiless land of delusions.

There are certainly passages of the sort of “Citizen Kane” ambition you expect from Anderson here, not least in the memorable leading performances by Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix and the magnificent wide-screen cinematography of Mihai Malaimare Jr., a new collaborator for Anderson. (See it in 70mm if you possibly can.) But if the canvas in “The Master” is large, the film’s focus is relentlessly intimate, perhaps even reductive. If you read the Wikipedia page on Hubbard, there’s enough drama, rumor and controversy there for a dozen movies, from his disputed career as an explorer and Navy officer to his attempt to have his wife certified as insane in Havana to the period in the ’70s when he wandered the Mediterranean in a fleet of ships called the “Sea Org,” attempting to ingratiate himself with authoritarian regimes in Greece and Morocco.

Bits and pieces of that historical background work their way into Anderson’s film, but it’s deliberately free of conventional plot and takes no notice of the political and social world. Instead, “The Master” tries to load all the allure, pathos, danger and tragedy of Dodd’s movement, here called simply “The Cause,” into his ambiguous relationship with one on-again, off-again acolyte, a drunken and damaged seaman named Freddie, played by Phoenix. You’d have to call Freddie the film’s protagonist, but that’s really an impossible word for a guy who’s so totally inarticulate and so lacking in self-awareness, a guy whose face seems frozen in a permanent stroke-victim sneer and who speaks in an inaudible mumble. Phoenix has always been an all-in actor, and this is one of those Brando-scaled performances that demands your attention, for good or ill. I’m torn between thinking he goes way over the top and thinking that he makes you feel the pain that Freddie, a battle-scarred war veteran battling a mental illness he cannot begin to understand, must endure every second of every day.

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