Few directors are more critically-beloved than Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood). His new film, The Master, may prove his most acclaimed yet, but one group isn’t a fan: The Church of Scientology. The Master, which opens in limited release today, stars Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled drifter and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a would-be prophet named Lancaster Dodd — a character with more than a passing resemblance to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Though Anderson has repeatedly downplayed the parallels in interviews, The Master has put Scientologists on the defensive, generating major publicity for the film. Now audiences can judge for themselves just how much the film goes after L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial movement. Is The Master really about Scientology, and are Scientologists right to be offended by it?
Of course it's about Scientology: The cast and crew's emphatic denials are "a mixture of concerted PR voodoo and a counter-bluff" that recalls Orson Welles' insistence that Citizen Kane had nothing to do with William Randolph Hearst, says Tom Shone at The Guardian. Both L. Ron Hubbard and the film's religion-inventor Lancaster Dodd "have a wife named Mary Sue," both "nurse a paranoia about the American Medical Association," and most importantly, both "flourished like toadstools in the shadow of the second world war, [recruiting] lost souls and walking wounded." It's absurd to claim that it wasn't "based in part on the founding of Scientology."
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It's not about Scientology — it's about religion: You've probably heard The Master referred to as "that Scientology movie," but it's hardly a straightforward attack on Scientology, says Stephen Marche at Esquire. The movie's core question — does the religion at its narrative's center "really differ from any other religion?" — has wider implications. The views of the film's characters, much like the views of Scientologists, "seem insane to the rest of us," but "Mitt Romney, who is neither insane nor evil, wears sacred underwear and believes that you get your own planet after you die" and every other religion has its own seemingly bizarre tenets. The Master's real moral? "None of these socially acceptable visions makes any more sense than aliens and volcanoes and past lives."
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Scientology is a clear inspiration — but The Master is about relationships: Scientology experts say that "the parallels between the religion and scenes from the movie are too strong to ignore," says Sheila Marikar at ABC News, but, in the end, Scientology is just one of The Master's influences, not its focus. The film's primary thrust is "the ebb and flow of the relationship" between its two leading men, not the details of its fictional religion. The real story here is Hoffman's and Phoenix's stellar performances, which "may prove to be The Master's legacy beyond the Scientology buzz" when awards season begins.
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