So we did indeed see The Master, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix, about a cult leader named Lancaster Dodd who is, not officially but obviously at least inspired by, L. Ron Hubbard. (At the Arclight Hollywood.) And it was… what’s a good word? Gripping. Reminiscent of Anderson’s last feature, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, in the emphasis on larger than life personalities, on bravura scenes that are intense for the characters and must have been grueling on the actors — especially one don’t-blink-your-eyes-until-I-say-so scene. It’s more about the type of person Hubbard perhaps was, charismatic and megalomaniac, and the type of follower — Phoenix in this film — whose past and personality reveal why he would be attracted to such a master. No it’s not about Scientology precisely, but there’s a very similar self-help methodology and an implicit theology (characters refer to billions and trillions of years without irony) in this film, which more than one smart character perceives that Lancaster Dodd is simply making up as he goes along. I would be fascinated by reactions to this film of anyone who knew Hubbard in person… Frederik Pohl? Robert Silverberg?
Phoenix could easily win a supporting actor Oscar for this; it’s the type of unhinged, almost insane, character, that often wins in this category. Hoffman convinces; he could be nominated. Amy Adams seems too young for her role, unless the point was that Dodd likes young wives, which didn’t seem supported by anything else in the film.
Not, I think, a best picture nominee…. judging only from this observation: as the film ended and credits rolled, maybe two people in the large, almost-filled auditorium applauded. This is Hollywood; audiences are enthusiasts, often knowing friends in the credits; it’s more common than not for audiences to applaud. Something about this film fascinated, but did not overwhelm.