Edelstein: "The Master" nails it

Philip Seymour Hoffman as a cult leader in "The Master."
Weinstein Company

(CBS News) A new motion picture with apparent references to a controversial religion has been generating a lot of talk. Our David Edelstein has a review:

It's been a not so quiet week in Clearwater, Fla., home (at least on Planet Earth) to the Church of Scientology. Vanity Fair ran a barnburner cover story on the church's wacky process of picking a mate for its most visible member, Tom Cruise.

Now comes Paul Thomas Anderson's fictional film about a leader reportedly - allegedly - said to be modeled on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. I've added the weasely qualifiers as protection against the most litigious religious leaders since the Spanish Inquisition.

Not that "The Master" is a cartoonish hatchet-job of L. Ron. It's a somber, magnificently photographed drama, cool-headed bordering on glacial.

The title character is Lancaster Dodd and, as played with exquisite nuance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man who cultivates an inner stillness in the face of attacks on what is here called "The Cause."

The movie is a tug-of-war between two titanic wills, the main character not Dodd, but a wildly unstable World War II Naval vet named Freddie Quell, and played to the hilt above the hilt by Joaquin Phoenix.

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Wayward weirdo Freddie needs a father figure, and clearly wants to belong to a family like Dodd's - he responds well to being, quote, "processed."

Anderson has nailed the appeal of Scientology, a therapy before it was a religion. The Cause has a dash of Freud - homing in on repressed traumas - but it's confrontational, even abusive, designed to free the spirit from the shackles of the body and its "animal" emotions.

See, the spirit has lived for trillions - yes, trillions - of years in different galaxies. So Dodd combines Freud, hypnosis, extreme interrogation, Buddhism, sci-fi: The man is an American huckster genius!

Paul Thomas Anderson is just the director to show us Hubbard (allegedly!) from this vantage. In films as different as "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," and "There Will Be Blood," he captures our need to be part of families, even surrogate ones, with strong fathers.

He also shows how bad daddies can swallow us up - drink our milkshakes.

"The Master" is probably too arty and ambiguous to be a hit like "There Will Be Blood," and Phoenix's Freddie is hard to warm up to.

But I love what Anderson gets at. Freddie needs to be led but needs to be absolutely free - and neither is a design for living.