The rumors were that this was to be a biography of that miserable charlatan, L. Ron Hubbard, and that the Scientologists were prepared to go to war over it. And brother, when those psychopaths go to war, you don’t want to get in their way. According to the producers, no one from the so-called church ever complained to them. The director, Paul Thomas Anderson, says he screened it for his friend, super-psycho-celebrity Tom Cruise, who was pissed, but didn’t do anything about it.
It’s perfectly clear that the story was indeed inspired by the life of the Great Pooh-bah of the Planet Xeno. There’s the business of the ship in the early part. L. Ron spent several years on a fleet of ships (well, three ships is a fleet, isn’t it?) trying to find a friendly port that would accept him. The processes the Master puts his students through resemble the “auditing” Scientologists pay through the nose for. His references to past lives stretching back trillions of years resonate nicely with LRH’s laughably stupid cosmology, involving atomic bombs and galactic empires. It’s all happening in 1950, which is when LRH first began bamboozling John W. Campbell and others with his Dianetics bullcrap.
(BTW: I keep thinking I know a fair amount about the cult, but every time I look a little deeper I find more, and scarier, things. Read the Wiki article about LRH and, if you can stand to, about the “church.” Mind control, plots against people and institutions, the single most damaging penetration of US government files in history. And much, much, much more. LRH degenerated into a raving paranoid schizophrenic, a psychotic, a lunatic. Life for those aboard the ships was little better than galley slavery. People were imprisoned in the hold and fed hardly anything. And the horrors go on and on. The “Church” of Scientology is the single most dangerous entity operating openly in the US. Al Qaeda is a joke, compared to them. I wish we would come to our senses and, like Germany (who learned a bit about fringe cults in the 1930s through 1945), outlaw them. But the sad fact is, they are the only organization ever to actually terrify the IRS!)
Back to the movie. Joaquin Phoenix is a badly disturbed WWII veteran, suffering from what we would call PTSD. He is an alcoholic, will drink anything, including photographic chemicals and literal “torpedo juice,” ethanol drained from torpedo engines. He knocks about for a while, and encounters the Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has developed some sort of hoo-doo known as The Cause. Some strange chemistry develops between them. He has a hair-trigger temper, and is prone to beat the crap out of anyone who questions the Master’s teachings. And the Master puts him through some pretty insane trials. No one else in The Cause likes him, including Master’s wife and daughter (Amy Adams, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and Ambyr Childers). In a cult, access to the Chief Voodoo Man is always jealously guarded.
This all fascinated me, right up to maybe two-thirds of the way through. Then it all began to wander, repeat itself, and I realized nothing much was happening. I wasn’t all that interested in what happened to Joaquin, and the Master had become so impenetrable he wasn’t even funny anymore. And as I had suspected was going to happen, it all just stopped. As a portrait of how these frightening cults work, it’s quite an experience, and it kept me going for a long time. But in the end, it all felt pretty hollow.
A word about Joaquin Phoenix. For a while he was known as Leaf, in keeping with the hippy-dippy names of his siblings: River, Summer, Rain, Liberty, and Organic Compost Heap. Okay, I made the last one up. They were all raised in a cult called the Children of God. They were pretty weird, and all it would have taken for their leader, David Berg, to be another Jim Jones or David Koresh was just a little nudge in the wrong direction, like some bad acid. I can’t help but wonder what his feelings are about cults. So far as I know he’s never disavowed his roots, but you have to wonder why he took this role.
And one more thing concerning P.S. Hoffman. This is a towering performance, certainly worthy of the Oscar nomination he got … for Best Supporting Actor. What I want to know is, just what are the criteria for a performance to be “supporting?” He is on screen almost as much as Joaquin is. This is far from my idea of supporting. He rules this movie, and hell, it is the title role. Joaquin is intense, but for some reason whenever he’s around all I can do is look under his nose and wonder if that’s a harelip or just a scar. Sorry. I’m not proud of that. Hoffman is way overdue for an Oscar. All I can figure is that leading and supporting is defined solely by billing.