Although Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master never states that it was inspired by real people or events, it’s no secret that the film draws significant inspiration from the life of L. Ron Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology. What is surprising about a film inspired by one of the more controversial religious movements of the last century is that nothing about The Master resembles any of the often volatile attacks launched against or in defense of the movement over the last fifty years. In fact, perhaps the greatest compliment one could pay The Master, its director Paul Thomas Anderson, and all of its stars is that it comes off as far from sensationalism and caricature as possible and instead delivers a story and characters who are wholly unique and human.
Opening just short of the end of World War II, The Master begins by introducing us to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII veteran whose return home soon finds him seemingly at odds with the new world around him, unable to hold down a job or exist in peace with others, and perpetually under the influence of his own borderline poisonous blends of homemade alcohol. Enter Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self proclaimed writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher, and the leader of a burgeoning movement of spiritual healing. Begin a story that is much more about the two men and their relationship than The Cause which we begin to see grown around them.
Peppered throughout the movie, we see bits and pieces of Dodd’s evolving philosophy, many of which are reminiscent of a handful of Scientology’s more well-known practices and principles. We are introduced to the belief in past lives, to the concept of bodies as only temporary vessels for core spiritual identities, and to the conviction that each of those souls once was and could exist in an inherent state of perfection. We witness recorded interrogations, therapeutic journeys into past lives, and exercises in imagining beyond what we see and feel before us. What we do not see in The Master, however, is a charlatan, a con man, or a power hungry tyrant.
While, as his son says, Dodd may very well be making up everything up as he goes along, the man we see truly seems to believe in the healing power of the philosophies and practices he has come up with. While at least one party may take legal action against him for his alleged misuse of their funds, never do we see him actually asking anyone for money to take part in his evolving Cause. And while Dodd may call himself Master, as we see in almost every scene he shares with the almost quietly villainous Amy Adams as his wife Peggy, she not only has Dodd wrapped around her little finger, she is pulling more strings than anyone else we meet.
As Dodd tells Freddie when he first meets him, while he may give himself many titles, above all, he’s just a man like Freddie. In fact, you might even say Freddie is like another side of Dodd himself. He is the animalistic side of man that Dodd so desperately seeks to tame within himself and others. He is an embodiment of trauma that Dodd deems so important to conquer. He is a man with no concern for the rules or regulations of others, ready to fight anyone who wrongs him, and subservient to nothing and no one.
As we see on more than one occasion, Freddie is a man who Dodd’s wife repeatedly and quite forcefully demands Dodd separate himself from and who you can almost see her talking to as she scolds Dodd for transgressions it isn’t even clear he has committed. And, ultimately, Freddie is the man who Dodd will declare his enemy and send away as The Cause begins to bloom into a full blown religion.