(Been meaning to get this on the page since I saw The Master a couple of weekends back.)
It's a pure coincidence that I happened to be reading Janet Reitman's very good book Inside Scientology just as Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master hit theaters. However, I did make it point to get through L. Ron Hubbard's death in the book before I saw the movie.
Anderson has been a bit coy about the extent to which the plot of his movie is informed by the events surrounding the founding and growth of the Church of Scientology. I have to say that it is pretty clear--at least inasmuch as Reitman's book is accurate--that the extent can be accurately described as "quite a lot, with the names changed".
"Processing" looks a great deal like auditing. There is the general idea that negative emotions arise from previous traumas, going back into previous lives, and that by repeatedly confronting these traumas one can reduce their reactivity to them, thus lessening their power. Adherents spend hours trying to alter their perceptions and their environments with their minds. The Xenu myth is referenced obliquely, in Lancaster Dodd's assertion that these past lives go back "trillions" of years. And even some biographical details--such as Dodd's dubious business of sailing other people's yachts around, his exile to England, and his strained relationship with his son--look an awful lot like Hubbard's.
That said, I think it is fair to say that The Master isn't a veiled takedown of the CoS so much as a meditation on how trauma and alienation can lead people to embrace some very odd things. The story focuses not on Dodd, but on Freddie Quell (Joachin Phoenix), a WWII vet who is utterly shredded by his experiences in the war, who encounters Dodd and "The Cause" when he drunkenly stows away on one of the aforementioned yachts.
The movie is bleak and atmosheric (much like in Anderson's There Will Be Blood, this is helped along considerably by a haunting and unsettling soundtrack by Radiohead's Johny Greenwood.) The camera work is gorgeous, and solid performances are delivered by
Phoenix, the always-excellent Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. Plot is very nearly an afterthought, but that really isn't the point. We're not working towards resolution so much as peeking in on something much bigger and more complicated than we can unravel in a couple of hours.
This is probably not a film for everybody, maybe not even everybody who likes Anderson's previous stuff. But I liked it, and perhaps more importantly...I'm still thinking about it.