Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master focuses, with almost unbearable intensity, on two characters: Joaquin Phoenix's impulsive ex-sailor Freddie Quell, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, "the founder and magnetic core of the Cause — a cluster of folk who believe, among other things, that our souls, which predate the foundation of the Earth, are no more than temporary residents of our frail bodily housing," writes The New Yorker's Anthony Lane in his review of the film. "Any relation to persons living, dead, or Scientological is, of course, entirely coincidental."
Before The Master came out, rumor built up that the film mounted a scathing critique of the Church of Scientology; now, we know that it accomplishes something, par for the course for Anderson, much more fascinating and artistically idiosyncratic.
Few of its gloriously 65-millimeter-shot scenes seem to have much to say, at least directly, about Scientology or any other system of thought. But perhaps the most memorable, in which Dodd, having discovered Freddie stown away aboard his chartered yacht, offers him a session of "informal processing," does indeed have much to do with the faith founded by L. Ron Hubbard — at least if you believe the analysis of Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, who argues that the scene "bears an unmistakable reference to a vital activity within Scientology called auditing."
Just as Dodd does to Freddie, "the auditor in Scientology asks questions of the 'preclear' with the goal of ridding him of 'engrams,' the term for traumatic memory stored in what's called the 'reactive mind.'" By thus "helping the preclear relive the experience that caused the trauma," the auditor accomplishes a goal that, in a clip Puschak includes in the essay, Hubbard lays out himself: to "show a fellow that he's mocking up his own mind, therefore his own difficulties; that he is not completely adrift in, and swamped by, a body." Scientological or not, such notions do intrigue the desperate, drifting Freddie, and although the story of his and Dodd's entwinement, as told by Anderson, still divides critical opinion, we can say this for sure: it beats Battlefield Earth.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.