"If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world." These are words spoken by one character to another in a pivotal scene near the end of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and they represent a key idea in the film: Do we flourish more when we are completely free and self-directed, or when we are subject to a master (or a mastering narrative/philosophy/religion)?
The Master—sprawling, cryptic, masterfully made—raises this question in provocative fashion, under the guise of a film about the early days of Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the Hubbard role—a character named Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a pseudo-scientific, self-help program called "The Cause." Dodd is known by his adherents as "Master," and indeed, "mastering" oneself is the primary doctrine that he teachers. Like Scientology, The Cause teaches that human spirits (in Scientology: Thetans) are trillions of years old, reborn repeatedly in various "vessel" bodies. Through a therapy-type practice they call "processing" (in Scientology: "auditing"), these beings are able to purge themselves of the traumas, baggage and animal behavior that keep them from progressing to their perfect state. The goal is complete self-mastery, where "psychological" issues and even health problems are cured through focused mental processing.
Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is meant to represent Hubbard in the earliest days of Scientology, during postwar America in the early 1950s. In the film he is a charismatic, wealthy, ascot-wearing family man with a supportive wife (Amy Adams) and children, with the exception of one skeptical son (Jesse Plemons) who believes his dad is "making all this up as he goes along." Dodd is a man of confidence and the life of the party, prone to raising glasses in toasts and saying things like, "We fought the day, and we won!"
The audience sees Dodd mostly through the eyes of the film's protagonist, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally unstable Navy veteran who stumbles across a "Cause" cruise ship and becomes something of a protégé (or project) to Dodd/Master. In stark contrast to the calm, collected, dignified Dodd (at least on the surface), Quell is a wild man—an animalistic, sex-crazed itinerant scoundrel. As played by Phoenix (very physically, sometimes cartoonishly), Quell feels like a prehistoric Neanderthal: low-hanging arms, shoulders hunched, with appetites only for sex and survival. As the film starts, he is a jobless drifter, having been fired or chased out of low-wage jobs due to fighting or other escapades. He's a vulnerable, impressionable man when he meets Dodd and gets sucked into The Cause, and the question at the heart of The Master is whether this self-help system really can help him take control of his life.