|Phoenix and Hoffman defend the faith in The Master.|
««« The Master. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
That there’s never been a major Hollywood movie about L. Ron Hubbard is not an accident. As detailed in Jon Atack’s scary expose A Piece of Blue Sky, Hubbard and the Church of Scientology have been persistent, aggressive, and shameless in their use of the courts to intimidate their critics. Even the IRS has been in the organization’s cross-hairs at one point: a strategy that, as Bill Clinton has said in another context, “takes brass.” To take on that particular story too directly is to run the risk of nuisance suits, petty harassment, and even death threats. Hubbard himself wrote in 1960: “If attacked on some vulnerable point by anyone or anything or any organization, always find or manufacture enough threat against them to cause them to sue for peace.”
But the rise of Hubbard from failed naval officer to Grade Z science fiction writer to prophet of his own religion is also a quintessentially American story. All at once, it reflects the popular myth of the entrepreneur, pulling himself up by his bootstraps, and the particularly American trait of innovating religious “technologies” as ingenious as any of the creature comforts of modernity. Whether we are speaking of Scientology or Mormonism or any of the other peculiarly American “faiths”, the distinction between inspiration and hucksterism can look awfully subtle. Declared Hubbard, “Writing science fiction for about a penny a word is no way to make a living. If you really want to make a million, the quickest way is to start your own religion.” By some accounts, he even wagered Robert Heinlein (or is it Isaac Asimov?) that he could—out of whole cloth. It might be said that Hubbard officially won when the IRS granted tax-exempt status to the Church of Scientology in 1993.
This landscape of big American myths is familiar territory to Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). His towering There Will Be Blood (2007) first mythologized, then deconstructed the kind of industrial titan (otherwise known as “job creator”) beloved of Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan. Religion figured in that story too, in the person of Daniel Day-Lewis’ nemesis, the boy-preacher played by Paul Dano. But Anderson takes on the cross-pollination of commerce and religion more directly in his latest, The Master.
Observing the better part of valor, Anderson has prudently avoided making his film about Hubbard himself. But the veil is thin: like Hubbard, his “Lancaster Dodd” (Philip Seymour Hoffman) finds fertile ground for converts among men and women adrift in the wake of World War II. Instead of Hubbard’s Dianetics, Dodd has invented a science of psychobabble he calls the Method which, like Hubbard’s, involves a series of structured interviews (“auditing” in Scientology, “processing” here). Like his inspiration, Dodd is can be smart, charming, and even self-effacing. But he is also, like Hubbard, desperately thin-skinned, to the point of full-blown paranoia. If anything, Hoffman plays this crypto-Hubbard too sympathetically, never stooping to out-and-out contempt for the people he cajoles into signing “billion-year contracts” for all their money.
Yet Anderson doesn’t think the key to understanding this story really lies with Lancaster Dodd. Instead, The Master is really about Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy wash-out and devoted alcoholic who drifts from job to job until he impulsively climbs aboard Dodd’s flagship. From there, he simultaneously becomes the Master’s enforcer and persistent critic—he knows very well that Dodd is making up his religion as he goes along, but the privilege of “belonging”, even to an elaborate con, is too seductive to walk away from.
Phoenix is terrific in this role. Not unlike the persona he adopted for Walk the Line, his Johnny Cash bio-pic, Phoenix fashions Freddie Quell by an almost sculptural twisting and rending of—well—himself. You’re never quite sure this is a plausible human being here, but Phoenix plays him, and Anderson shoots him in such searching, unflinching long takes, that it doesn’t matter.
By making Phoenix’s character the touchstone of his movie, Anderson is saying that an “origin story” of a thing like Scientology (or indeed, any religion) misses the point. What gives the thing its power is not where it comes from, but how it is perceived, and by whom. Lancaster Dodd, though impressive and expansive and ingenious, is less important to the success of his endeavor than his smaller, meaner followers, like Freddie Quell. In this, Anderson undercuts the myth of the master entrepreneur as deftly as he did in There Will Be Blood.
Plausible as all that is, it leaves a void in the center of The Master that dissatisfies. I like to think this was intentional—the narrative equivalent of the empty room in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem, where the less sophisticated imagined the Holy of Holies would lie. But there’s no escaping the suspicion that Anderson has pulled his punches here, for obvious reasons. Some sacred cows kick, and they kick hard.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro