You’d think that a fictional film about the origins of (not) Scientology assembled by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) would be a ball straight out of the park. After a decade of references to Xenu and billion-year contracts, we can’t help but be intrigued by how such an interesting organization came to be. Anderson takes us, in a very thorough effort, to a time after World War II when an intellectual like The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is more than happy to provide answers and comfort to those who need it most: everyone. What he doesn’t do is tell us much of an origin story.
Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is a simple creature. Primordial, even. His motivations are merely ‘fuck’ and ‘kill’; anything more simply fails to latch on. After a brutal conflict in the Pacific, he’s reinserted into American life where he fails to gel. Stowing aboard a yacht, he finds himself hooked on the promise and intellect of The Master, submitting to a “process” session with him as he attempts to burrow into Freddie’s psyche. As the observer, we watch as The Master asks nonsensical, pointless questions that Freddie endeavors to understand and wonder whether The Master is indeed full of hot air. While entertaining the guests who brought him up the coast, The Master is questioned by a skeptic and spills into an nonsensical diatribe to explain his point of view of a trillion year universe.
Freddie abides to their order, The Cause, but he’s a rabid dog, The Master’s beloved pet. He attacks the foes of The Cause and they keep him within their circle despite the fact that he won’t stop drinking and he won’t stop fighting. We watch as Freddie is forced into long, repetitive exercises to polish off those ragged corners, exercises that would woo the mind of someone slightly smarter, but simply baffle him. Over and over, we observe a gear missing in his noggin, something failing to click. Despite his flaws, The Master still loves him.
Those expecting some grandiose tale about how Scientology came to be will be let down. This is Freddie’s movie. The rise of The Master‘s Cause isn’t much different than the story of a major conflict from the perspective of a general’s aide: distant and perhaps unsatisfying. Perhaps this is how Anderson got around Scientology’s scrutiny, perhaps this was his plan the whole time. Instead, this is a film about how Freddie doesn’t get it. It’s a film about how he’ll never get it. If this film feels long, repetitive, and pointless, as my friends have said, it’s because that’s the path of Freddie. The viewer’s struggles with the movie are the same that The Cause has with Freddie. I didn’t say it was a great idea, but on paper, it makes complete sense.