Lancaster Dodd—the character played with such mesmerizing assurance by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—is not to be confused with L. Ron Hubbard. That much should be said at the outset, given that the Scientology connection has served as a convenient tag for what Anderson’s new film is about. The notion was certainly intriguing, but anyone familiar with Anderson’s work might have guessed that some kind of straightforward docudrama was not in the offing. Perhaps one day there will indeed be a biopic that grapples with the convoluted and much-contested details of Hubbard’s scarcely credible career as spiritual entrepreneur—one might imagine a mode anywhere from satiric grotesque to Machiavellian analysis to impassioned polemic—but The Master is not that film, full though it is of hints in such directions.
It is something more interesting: a freestanding work of the imagination, a contemplative fiction. Anderson has taken whatever he needed from the early history of Scientology, drawing freely on its vocabulary, doctrines, and methods, and from much else besides, to create an intimate epic of irrational need, an inner history of cultish transactions reconfigured as a sorrowful and distinctively American poem. It is such a decisive accomplishment that it casts fresh light on Anderson’s previous films—Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and There Will Be Blood (2007)—a body of work whose coherence and astonishing ambition is clearer than ever.
“The pure products of America go crazy”: William Carlos Williams’s indelible line might serve as a motto not only for this film but for all of Anderson’s work to date. The Cause—Dodd’s quasi religion resembling Dianetics—is shown to be just such a pure product, the kind of destination that couldn’t exist if enough people didn’t desperately need to go there. When movies have attempted to show the inner life of cults and newfangled religions, they have generally sought to convey how strange they are. Anderson by contrast shows how strange they are not.
America has after all long since been the great breeding ground of self-help cults and apocalyptic sects and secret initiations, of home-brewed universal panaceas and fresh-minted pseudoscientific jargon, of occult communal bondings and shunnings. In the perspective of The Master, these are not denials but extensions and variations of American life. When Freddie Quell, the traumatized veteran incarnated unforgettably by Joaquin Phoenix, throws in his lot with the Cause, it is not as if he is fleeing from normality into an eerie shadow world. Whether inside or outside the movement, the world as he finds it is equally chaotic and unrelenting.
This is where we live, and it is a country of deep loneliness—that same loneliness that permeates all of Anderson’s films, and against which his characters are forever forming themselves into protective families or parodies of families, a …