They lead to volcanic eruptions of fury, as when a doubter accuses him of quackery at a society fundraising soiree or a keen devotee (Laura Dern) wonders why he’s changed one of the founding principles in his second book, The Split Saber. What might upset Scientologists most is Quell’s habit – with Dodd’s tacit approval – of dispensing brutal beatdowns on public dissenters of the Master’s message, which riffs on L Ron Hubbard’s formulated faith with its practice of ‘processing’ (read: auditing) – incessant probing asserted to rid believers of disruptive emotions accumulated over millions of years (the galaxial dimension is lightly referenced in Dodd’s occasional, paranoid questioning, e.g. “Are you a member of the Hidden Rulers?”).
Shot exquisitely on 70mm, “The Master” is a visual triumph, crammed with magnificent, painterly imagery and electricity-charged scenes that will linger long in the memory: Quell's descent into a ship’s hold to drain a torpedo and create a liver-killing cocktail; the first ‘processing’ session between Quell and Dodd; a furious jailhouse row that finishes off a porcelain toilet. The depth of storytelling and the compelling, complex relationship between Phoenix and Hoffman, which encompasses father-son, saviour-disciple, master-servant, but most of all seducer and seduced, each by the other, will demand a second viewing.