The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

September 28, 2012

Benji Tunnell: Actors make Scientology movie powerful

By Benji Tunnell
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Scientology has held something of a fascination for me.

What has been deemed a Hollywood cult has seemed to capture the minds of those who you would think would know better. Yet, a recent article listing the silent members of the church showed that it was even more widespread than I had initially realized.

And after an interview with former member/director Paul Haggis, which cast the religion in a very negative light by showing bullying tactics and mind manipulation that take place, it seemed more and more like a cult. I couldn’t help thinking that this pseudo-religion would be a fascinating basis for a movie, but had assumed that with the power the church wields in Hollywood that such a film would never take place.

But with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” we get our glimpse into the world of Scientology, or at least a fictionalized version based on the religion and its leader, L. Ron Hubbard.

Anderson delivers again

Anderson is one of the few consistent directors working today. After his last film, the brilliant “There Will Be Blood,” many were anticipating his follow-up. After hints of what his next story would be about, anticipation continued to build. And for the most part, it is worth the wait.

“The Master” follows the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a Navy veteran and drifter who bounces from job to job and place to place until he stows away on a ship. Aboard the ship is Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a religion based on his writings called “The Cause”.

The religion uses a combination of hypnotism, brainwashing and past life analysis to convert and convince members. Followers are fervent in their beliefs, even when Dodd’s own son claims his father to be a charlatan (as did Hubbard’s son). The movie watches as Quell grows within the religion, dedicating himself to the master’s wishes, before slowly growing disillusioned and beginning to drift away.

“The Master” is a beautifully filmed and scored movie, showing the quiet desperation of Quell and the powerful manipulation of Dodd. Anderson has a reputation for bringing out the best in an actor (just look what he did for Mark Wahlberg), and what this film will be remembered for is the performances. Here are the three that stand out the most:

Actors shine onscreen

Amy Adams plays Dodd’s wife, Peggy -- a strong, sometimes silent woman whose hidden strength appears whenever her husband or his religion is threatened. She sees Quell as a danger to the ministry, his rampant alcoholism quietly infecting her husband.

Adams has played a variety of characters throughout her career, yet none as dynamic, forceful, devoted or calming as Peggy. She delivers a performance that balances these traits carefully, but allows each to be revealed as warranted.

Hoffman is coolly calm yet overtly charismatic as Dodd. From his initial introduction to Quell to the final scene, it is easy to see how he could have manipulated this weak and yearning mind.

Hubbard turned writings and ideas that would be considered insane into an enduring religion, and Hoffman captures the charisma to bring that kind of character alive onscreen.

Joaquin’s return

The star of the film is Phoenix. After nearly destroying his career with the performance-art piece “I’m Still Here,” Phoenix all but disappeared, seemingly stung by the overwhelming criticism of his faux rap career.

After seeing his take on Quell, however, it seems that he may have salvaged a once promising career with one role. Quell is a weak-willed and weak-minded man, driven by alcoholism and haunted by poor life choices. His sickness is such that he makes his booze out of everything from photo processing chemicals to paint thinner.

Phoenix, with his haggard look, his weary performance and his Ed Grimley posture, portrays a beaten, saddened and seeking man. Phoenix wraps himself in the character, making a man both wholly unlikable yet inherently sympathetic.

The final product is a thought-provoking, interesting and mostly satisfying film. It is character-driven, hinging less on plot and more on those Anderson has enlisted to tell his story.

It doesn’t feel as encompassing as “There Will Be Blood,” but the performances carry the film. It is the story of a charismatic charmer preying on the weaknesses of his fellow man, yet each actor adds so much depth and dimension to their role that each is relatable, if not always redeemable.

It is bound to get the Scientology community worked up (word is that Tom Cruise isn’t too happy), but sometimes light needs to be shone into darkened areas.