Paul Thomas Anderson is the master. His films feel epic even when they're essentially dealing with just two characters as he does here. It's because he mines the central theme for all it has to give. On the surface the film is about a cult leader and his latest devotee. But it is also a post war story and can even be extrapolated to the meaning of life. Anderson asks who is your master?
We are introduced to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, GLADIATOR) during World War II when he is on the beach with his fellow soldiers trying to unwind. He builds a naked woman in the sand, talks about how to get rid of crabs, all the while he guzzles down booze from his flask. He shocks his fellow soldiers and makes a strong impression on the viewer. When he comes home from the war, he is confused, lost and angry. He drifts from being a department store photographer to a day laborer on a cabbage farm until one night he stumbles upon the yacht occupied by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, CAPOTE).
After a night on the ship, which he does not remember, Freddie is called into the office of Dodd. In the questions he asks Freddie, Dodd seems to be scoping out this scoundrel (his word). Freddie is willing to work, but Dodd seems to have another purpose for him. During his stay on the ship Freddie begins to learn about The Cause, which is Dodd's philosophy where through tough questioning a human being can recall events in past lives that go back trillions of years. Freddie doesn't seem to get what Dodd and his followers are doing. All he's really interested in is sleeping with the beautiful women onboard.
So why does Dodd take in this violent drunkard? At the core of Dodd's philosophy is the total control of our emotions. This makes Freddie the perfect test subject, because if Dodd can shape this man, he can shape any man. So why does Freddie attach himself to an enigmatic intellectual? Right from their first conversation Dodd gives him purpose. Dodd makes Freddie seem special in indulging in his homemade hooch, which includes a mixture of various liquors with a dash of paint thinner for that added kick. Dodd also claims that he and Freddie had met in a previous life, which strangely ramps up the intensity of the relationship quickly. Freddie's lack of inhibition and low IQ make it easy for Dodd to try out the most extreme parts of his new "processing" therapy. What we see is a man trying to break the will of another man.
Anderson brings great detail to the narrative creating an authentic 1950s time period and the early world of Scientology. Dodd is clearly modeled on science-fiction writer turned religious guru L. Ron Hubbard. From the run-ins with the law to his anger over any doubters, the similarities between Dodd and Hubbard are many. But the film is really not an indictment of Scientology, but a look at how any religion begins its life viewed as a fringe cult and fights for legitimacy over time. Even Dodd's son Val (Jesse Plemons, PAUL) says he's making it up as he goes along. Dodd's evolving philosophy gains detractors within his own inner circle who believe the new ideas contradict the old foundation of their belief system, making it hard to reconcile the contradictions. But a man who goes as far as to bury his unpublished work in a box in the middle of the desert is not a man who feels his work should be questioned.
Freddie is the perfect mindless follower who doesn't really fully understand what Dodd is preaching, but goes along with it unconditionally. He often lashes out violently against anyone who speaks ill of his master. However, this raw individual is a corrosive force within the movement. Whatever positive influence Dodd has on Freddie, Freddie has an equal negative influence on Dodd. Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams, JUNEBUG) is not a fan of Freddie. In a brilliant scene, Dodd's family sits around the dinner table questioning his relationship with Freddie, wondering if the womanizing drunkard is really a mole within the organization trying to bring it down. The scene shows the paranoia that sets in in cults when various factions are fighting for the ear of their "prophet."
Phoenix and Hoffman give two of the best performances of their stellar careers. The diametrically different characters battle it out for Freddie's soul. Phoenix's character is a simple man and he gives him a facial expression that is somewhere between a befuddled Popeye and a stroke victim. Phoenix also walks slouched over and whenever I saw him walking behind Dodd, I couldn't help but think of an image of Igor walking behind the mad scientist. Hoffman makes Lancaster Dodd a showman, something that is very useful when trying to convince people they are really an ancient alien soul that has been dealing with the same dark issues for a millennia. He has convinced himself that he is the smartest man in any room and because of this demands the spotlight be on him alone. He comes off as a dignified, inviting and kind person, but there is something unsettling behind his eyes when he repeatedly hits a follower with their darkest secrets to get at them. And if you cross him, watch out.
In tone, it is similar to Anderson's THERE WILL BE BLOOD, but more haunting than dark. In some ways, Freddie's struggles with impulse control are like Adam Sandler's character in Anderson's PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. The mentor relationship between Dodd and Freddie is like Jack Horner and Dirk Diggler of BOOGIE NIGHTS. Unusual father / son / prodigal son stories are something across many of his films including MAGNOLIA. You can see the key themes that define Anderson's career.
Anderson's film at times feels very enigmatic. But like I said at the start, some of its riddles can be answered when you think about the question — who is your master? Freddie answers that question at the end for himself whether he knows it or not. The last few scenes give us clues to the answer, never spelling it out. I think the answer is not simple like Dodd would want it to be. That's why some choose to follow and others do not.