Paul Thomas Anderson is the rare auteur whose clever films are wholly unique from one another, which is why I’m looking forward to his upcoming, potentially controversial project operating under the working title The Master. Universal passed on it due to its $35 million budget, but according to Deadline, River Road may wind up fully financing the film and shifting it over to the capable distributors at Apparition. Here are my thoughts on the script:
[I want to preface this review by saying the draft I read is an early outline by Anderson full of misspellings, TBDs, "etc.", and ellipses in an otherwise incomplete collection and flow of thoughts. For this reason, my "review" won't dissect the traditional dialogue and plot structure, but will instead focus on the thematic direction Anderson seems to be headed.]
Like his masterful There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s latest is a period piece. Specifically 1952, which is not-so-coincidentally the year L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology and began to foster it as a worldwide religious movement. Anderson’s script never identifies its core belief system as Scientology, nor does it borrow its terminology or directly reference its origins, but the clues are strong enough that it would take significant brainwashing to believe it’s based on anything else.
While the tentative title suggests a story centered on the mastermind (to be played by frequent PTA collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman), the focus is on the transformation of Freddie Sutton, a 20-something aimless, alcoholic vagabond. Recent reports have put the Oscar-nominated Hurt Locker star Jeremy Renner in the role, who seems perfectly suited for the misguided youth character and Anderson’s emotional direction.
Freddie strays between odd jobs, often mixing his strong booze concoction that ultimately blinds an unlucky imbiber. Fearing authorities, Freddie flees and stows away on a ship in the San Francisco harbor, which he quickly learns is a wandering haven for an upstart cult.
When followers discover Freddie’s a fraud, he’s introduced to the red-haired “master of ceremonies,” a megalomaniac leader who describes himself as a writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher, and a hopeless inquisitive man. Others, including his wife Mary Sue (same name as Hubbard’s), simply refer to him as “Master.”
As with characters in There Will Be Blood and Magnolia, Master toys with the idea of a god complex. Aside from the obvious title, the manipulative leader bends his own rules and the will of his people to what serves him personally, including a clearly selfish consideration of plural unions and continuous contributions to his already considerable wealth.
Like Hubbard did for months, Master lives and presides over his disciples on a ship (named Aletheia after the Greek word for “truth”), which he later tells Freddie is to escape the critics, distractions, and ex-wives (Hubbard had two). There the Master wildly writes new entries to the Cause and as a charismatic storyteller captivates audiences with fantastic tales of dragons.
The Master’s interrogation of a drugged Freddie suggest a deep-seeded paranoia as the questioning spirals into delusional conspiracy theories of government agency investigations and whether or not Freddie is a member of the ninth battalion or any other invading force. “Space stations or communication depots on this planet or anywhere else?” asks Master.
Once the cult leader is sufficiently convinced Freddie is harmless, he is thrust reluctantly into the odd indoctrination process and given “The Cause” to read. Meanwhile, the stowaway witnesses brainwashed followers studying the book intently, listening to recordings of Master’s lectures, and undergoing “time-hole” hypnotic therapy.
Like Scientologists, the Master claims the Cause is an “exact science” and subjects Freddie to a random series of questions called “processing” (similar to the “auditing” methods of Scientology). “It’s not a religion,” Master tells him. “Philosophy is senior to religion. You could call us a religion of religions.” There are even fleeting, mocking references to Freud and, of course, psychotherapy. The Master continues, saying Freddie’s aggressive, addictive, and anti-authority impulses are a result of implants from “trillions of years ago” created by high wattage electric pulses called quaver bolts.
While Anderson seems to have nailed the ridiculous belief systems, these “implants” introduce much deeper themes of genetic disposition versus intellectual and emotional freedom and basic concepts of fate versus choice. What better way for a cult to prey on the spiritually and intellectually weak than to claim they’re at the mercy of forces controlling them at a cellular level?
It’s similarly about man’s struggle to master his own domain, including memories, body, spirit, addictions, and sexual urges, while meeting a partner who shares the same free will.
At a Cause rally a skeptic suggests it’s merely hypnosis and a type of cult behavior, which causes an overly defensive Master to erupt on stage. Freddie, now a “soldier” to the Cause, later tracks down the man, which fits with rumors of Scientology’s scare tactics and intimidation. However, a third act sends Freddie careening off from the Cause, thinking, acting, and fighting temptations on his own. It’s this arc and not the vilification of Scientology that makes Anderson’s early script impressive and a rightfully anticipated project.