Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, who is to L Ron Hubbard as Charles Foster Kane is to William Randolph Hearst, as Hynkel is to Hitler, or as The Emperor is to Benedict XVI. With names changed to avoid the infamous wrath of the Church of Scientology, this takes a look at how a cult is born, round the personality of one charismatic man.
The story is told from the perspective of Freddie Quell (Jouquin Phoenix), a troubled World War Two veteran with a devil-may-care approach to life. He chances across a boat containing Dodd, AKA The Master, and his extended family, then enters into Dodd’s counselling programme to tackle issues in his past. As his treatment progresses, The Master’s theories about human psychology become stranger and as the movement gathers momentum it runs into ever-increasing controversy and legal troubles.
With the similarities to L Ron Hubbard and the early days of Dianetics so numerous, it’s something of a shame the film makers didn’t simply bite the bullet and make it about Scientology. With the church’s past behaviour towards critics it’s hardly surprising they steered clear of a head-on challenge, but it’s also harder to wrangle with the bizarre specifics of Scientologist mythology when everything has to be altered slightly.
But even without its scathing critique of the controversial cult, this is a superb human drama, thanks mostly to the performances of Phoenix and Hoffman. As The Master, Hoffman perfectly captures the likeable approachability and psychotic charisma needed to convince as the founder of such a bizarre church. Phoenix is similarly perfect as Quell, with a performance not a million miles from Jack Nicholson’s sneering military man in A Few Good Men. This film is at its mesmerising best when these two masters of their craft share the screen which is, thankfully, for most of the film.
How religions begin in modern times is very confusing to most of us. There are numerous fringe religious groups, people claiming to be messiahs, and quasi-spiritual new age beliefs with no grounding in reality that are very hard to imagine starting out. What The Master does is provide a convincing dramatisation of how this can happen through the brilliantly done interplay between two superb characters.