The Master (out on DVD today!) isn’t about Scientology. There’s something in it that’s very much like Scientology, but it’s not really what the movie’s about.
When we first see Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), he’s pouring a beer into a coconut so it can mix with the coconut milk. Then he drinks something made out of the juice that’s inside torpedoes. When he’s working as a photographer, he drinks the developer fluid. I’m not sure why, because he has a job. You’d think he could afford regular alcohol, but he’s always mixing chemicals together that don’t look safe. He only poisons one person that we see, although there’s a pretty good chance he’s supposed to have some sort of permanent damage. He also mixes drinks out of paint thinner for Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but he does that at Dodd’s request.
So when he meets Dodd, he’s established as a hopeless alcoholic prone to sudden violent outbursts. Dodd has a system (“The Cause”) for fixing personality problems and insanity that seems to be largely based on hypnosis and conditioning. And Freddie becomes extremely attached to Dodd, although I personally do not feel that Dodd’s system is all that effective. It certainly doesn’t work on Freddie, who only makes just enough progress to only attack people who are threatening the system. I guess if you’re trying to build a cult, you want someone around to beat up backsliders, but ideally that guy would only do it when you want him to. Freddie’s never really in control of his actions. And even with all the conditioning, Dodd’s not much in control of Freddie’s actions either.
The movie is more interested in Freddie and Dodd than it is in The Cause. But there’s a good chunk of the movie engaged in watching people doing past life regression (which is called “the time hole” here, which I love) and being conditioned by answering the same questions over and over again. Freddie mostly accepts this uncritically, although he freaks out at one point. Because that’s what this character does: he freaks out. If Dodd had as much sense as he thinks, he’d get Freddie away from him. It’s got to be hard to convince a skeptical public that you hold the keys to happiness and serenity when there’s a screaming lunatic right next to you.
But Dodd seems to like Freddie. They share a fondness for horrific poisonous liquors, although Dodd has the self-control to abstain. I’d say that Dodd likes having someone around who will obey him instantly and uncritically, but he’s got a lot of people like that. Freddie is an interesting character, because he’s not smart enough to know why he does the things he does. But Dodd’s a lot smarter, and I don’t think he has a good reason for making Freddie his protege either. Maybe he likes working on Freddie because his subconscious is so close to the surface that he’s easy to hypnotize? It’s possible that Dodd is fascinated by Freddie, but I think the truth is that he just likes him.
So I liked this movie a lot. I like movies that seem like they have hidden depths.