We are told by the cast and crew of the new film “The Master” that their movie is not “about” Scientology, the self-empowerment-oriented religion founded by pulp sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. On a pedantic level that’s true: the plot concerns a charismatic guru named Lancaster Dodd, founder of a new religious movement called The Cause, and his relationship with a troubled disciple and sometime adversary named Freddie Quell. But Dodd, played by the formidable Philip Seymour Hoffman, is clearly modeled on Hubbard in much the same way that Charles Foster Kane was modeled on media magnate William Randolph Hearst. “Master” director Paul Thomas Anderson acknowledged this during a press conference at the Venice Film Festival in early September, stating, “I based ["The Master"] on L. Ron Hubbard, a lot of it based on the early days of Dianetics [precursor to Scientology]. I really don’t know a whole hell of a lot about Scientology, particularly now. But I do know a lot about the beginning of the movement and it inspired me to use it as a backdrop for these characters.”

That moment of candor aside, virtually every other person involved in the film has been less forthcoming about the connection with Hubbard, and there are two likely reasons for the obfuscation. First, there is the sensible desire on the part of everyone responsible for this movie to stay out of the gunsights of the highly litigious Church of Scientology, which exerts considerable influence in Hollywood. There is also the wish to keep the focus on the true dramatic core of the movie: the complicated and volatile relationship between its two principal characters, Dodd and Quell. This makes a lot of sense. Although “Citizen Kane” was more of a straight biopic than “The Master,” it too is now revered more for its artistry and powerful central performance than for its historical parallels with Hearst’s story.

There is certainly much to admire in “The Master” beyond the manner in which it addresses the religious movement that inspired it. In particular, Joaquin Phoenix, as the deeply disturbed World War II veteran Quell, goes well beyond typical Method immersion into something truly feral and dangerous. One scene, in which Phoenix ferociously hurls his body against virtually all available hard surfaces in a jail cell and then kicks a toilet so hard he causes it to shatter must have had on-set safety monitors biting their nails in terror. And I suspect the first “processing” scene between Phoenix and Hoffman, during which Phoenix’s face—in an extended, screen-filling shot—oscillates through virtually every conceivable human emotion will be mandatory viewing in acting classes for many years to come.

“The Master” is indeed much more than a “Scientology movie.” Yet Anderson clearly has studied the “beginnings of the movement” closely; virtually all aspects of the Dodd/Cause story track with Scientology’s history, among these the founder’s volatile temperament and refusal to debate his critics openly; the unstinting devotion of his true-believer wife; his conflicted, lookalike son who sees the charade for what it is yet longs for his father’s approval; the ragtag group’s hopscotching from one locale to another (Philadelphia, Phoenix, England); and the metastasizing of self-help movement into sci-fi-accented religion.

Very little of that material is disguised or altered to any significant degree. But Anderson does rearrange the chronology somewhat: he condenses Scientology’s sea-based era (hounded by various governments, Hubbard spent an eight year period in the late 1960s-early 1970s leading the religion from the captain’s cabin of a former Irish Sea cattle ferry he christened “The Apollo”) into a single nautical voyage in 1950. And, in a canny move, he has the character of Peggy Dodd (Lancaster’s wife) give voice to some of Hubbard’s more controversial ideas; at one point she says to her husband, “And this is where we are at: at the lowest level—to have to explain ourselves, for what? For what we do, we have to grovel. The only way to defend ourselves is to attack. If we don’t do that we will lose every battle that we are engaged in. We will never dominate our environment the way we should unless we attack.”

This appears to paraphrase the Scientology policy of “attack the attacker,” which Hubbard crafted in 1966 as a means of dealing with those who would criticize or undermine the religion. “Don’t ever tamely submit to an investigation of us,” he wrote his followers. “Make it rough, rough on attackers all the way. You can get ‘reasonable about it’ and lose. (…) So BANISH all ideas that any fair hearing is intended and start our attack with their first breath. Never wait. Never talk about us—only them.”

There is no evidence that L. Ron Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue, had an influence in shaping such tactics. But she was a zealot for the cause—so much so that she ended up doing jail time in 1983 as a consequence of her involvement in Operation Snow White, a series of deep-cover infiltrations and Watergate-style break-ins that had the aim of disrupting ongoing local and federal investigations of the Church of Scientology. Mary Sue and six other Scientology executives ultimately took the fall for the scheme while Hubbard was named by prosecutors as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” Journalist Janet Reitman describes the operation as “the largest program of domestic espionage in U.S. history.”

None of this is in the movie. Operation Snow White is a complex enough story to merit a film of its own. But there is more than a little of Mary Sue Hubbard’s doggedness in Amy Adams’s steely portrayal of Peggy Dodd. And if there were any doubt as to Anderson’s intent here, one need only to look at earlier versions of the screenplay in which the character is named Mary Sue Dodd. Putting the “attack the attacker” ideas in Peggy’s mouth has the double effect of making her more dynamic and deflecting the criticism that “The Master” is simply a point-by-point take-down of L. Ron Hubbard. This also enables Lancaster Dodd to emerge as a more sympathetic character: unstable but charismatic, caught up in the whirlwind he has set in motion, and, like his wife, believing wholeheartedly in his invented system of spiritual advancement.

That last quality is accurate of L. Ron Hubbard as well. Much is now made of a statement Hubbard allegedly made to other pulp writers early in his career that “the real money” lay in starting a religion. Even if true, what gets lost in the telling of this story is that Hubbard had a great capacity for buying into his own myth. In the book Inside Scientology, Janet Reitman writes, “Garrulous, with self-deprecating humor and a ready wit, (Hubbard) attracted people like a magnet and made them believe in his dreams. What’s more, he seemed to believe in them himself.” She quotes Hubbard: “If there is anyone in the world calculated to believe what he wants to believe, it is I.”

Significant screen time in “The Master ”is devoted to a practice called “processing,” which is based on the core Scientology technique of “auditing,” and these scenes clear up some of the mystery of why Scientology has held on so tenaciously over the years in the face of so much controversy. Beneath the grandiosity, the outright fabrications, the shady financial practices, and the Flash Gordon-meets-Dale Carnegie cosmology resides an appealing self-betterment “technology” that can be, in some cases at least, effective. In Dianetics: A Doctor’s Report—one of the few objective treatments of the practice of auditing—Joseph A. Winter presents case studies of troubled individuals who displayed marked improvements after after taking part in the procedure. In particular, those plagued by phobias seemed to respond well. The core aim of auditing—to erase “engrams” (painful memories or emotional blocks caused by trauma) by confronting them repeatedly until all unpleasant associations have dissipated—is essentially a re-branding of abreaction therapy: a method that had been investigated and ultimately discarded by Carl Jung many years earlier. There are also elements in Hubbard’s approach—particularly the technique of desensitizing the sufferer to his or her phobias through repetition—that overlap somewhat with those of exposure therapy, which is now used widely in the treatment of anxiety disorders.

Hubbard’s genius move was to distill these ideas into a hierarchy of levels he called “The Bridge to Total Freedom” and affix a hefty price tag to the enterprise—to be paid in installments, of course. He even introduced an electronic device (not featured in the movie) called an “E-meter” that could supposedly monitor the intensity of the patient’s engrams. This provided the appearance of measurable results that gave Hubbard’s program a perceived edge over traditional psychotherapy.

The author William S. Burroughs, a man with no shortage of personal problems, became enamored with auditing in the 1960s and stated, “Scientology can do more in ten hours than psychoanalysis can do in ten years.” But the anarchistic Burroughs quickly found himself at odds with the church’s autocratic structure and began criticizing the organization loudly and publicly—first in the pages of Mayfair and later in Rolling Stone. When slapped by the church with a “treason order,” he responded, “I do not concede to any organization the right to dictate what I will or will not say in published work. … No writer can be a member of any organization that dictates what he will say and fulfil his role as a writer.”

Burroughs’s sympathetic views on auditing seem to dovetail with those of Dr. Winter. But Winter concedes that in some cases auditing can be deeply harmful. He documents, in his book, one instance of what appeared to be auditing-induced psychosis. Janet Reitman echoes his observations in her book Inside Scientology, quoting former Dianetics student Perry Chapdelaine: “People had breakdowns quite often. It was always hushed up before anyone found out about it.” Paul Thomas Anderson may have been aware of these accounts, as “The Master” features several fairly dramatic scenes of Quell experiencing psychotic breaks after undergoing processing.

On balance, however, since Quell exhibits similar behavior well before coming into contact with Dodd and his entourage, his post-session breakdowns may be seen less as a statement on the psychosis-inducing effects of auditing and more as a dismissal of Scientology’s ability to treat individuals who are truly troubled. It’s one thing for Dodd to hypnotize a middle-aged society dame and breezily take her through her various past-life infractions, quite another to rehabilitate a truly traumatized soul such as Quell. And this gets to the core of the problem of Scientology: the central practice of the religion—auditing—consists of individuals with no medical training and no understanding of psychiatric diagnoses attempting to “clear” the vast panorama of mental ailments with a one-size-fits-all strategy.

Anderson touches on these concerns via a character named John More, who functions as a sort of Greek chorus for Scientology’s critics when he says to Dodd, “Good science allows for more than one opinion. Otherwise you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult.” It’s a great line, prompting an impressively controlled meltdown from Hoffman, but More’s function as a cipher, rather than a flesh-and-blood character, diminishes the impact of the scene. Those viewers who might have been hoping for a sustained, principled attack on this most controversial of religious movements will probably feel a little disappointed in the movie overall. Still, the fact that Anderson was even able to get a critical Scientology-based film off the ground is impressive.

Journalist Pauline Cooper had a quite different experience when her book The Scandal of Scientology was published in 1971. She quickly found herself on the receiving end of a particularly extreme manifestation of the “attack the attacker” policy. In Inside Scientology, Janet Reitman recounts:

Church operatives tapped [Cooper's] phones, broke into her apartment, posted her number on bathroom walls, and handed out flyers to her neighbors, alleging that she was a prostitute. They also stole Cooper’s stationery; then they framed her. Using her stationery, they sent several bomb threats to the New York Church of Scientology in 1973. As a result, Cooper was arrested and indicted on three counts of felony; she faced fifteen years in prison if convicted. … Finally, in 1975, after Cooper took and passed a sodium amytal test [the "truth serum" test] the government decided not to pursue prosecution.

To be fair, it would appear in recent years that the Church of Scientology has largely abandoned overt attacks on outside entities. The television channel Comedy Central was initially pressured by the church to not air a Scientology-themed episode of the satirical South Park, but when the episode aired anyway, Trey Parker and Matt Stone—the South Park creative team—were not subjected to anything near the level of harassment that Pauline Cooper had endured. Similarly, Janet Reitman, New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright, and Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth have all emerged relatively unscathed after writing critically about the religion. In a recent interview with the New York Post, former Scientology official Marty Rathbun said of “The Master,” “The biggest indication [of Scientology’s waning power in Hollywood] is that Paul Thomas Anderson is putting that movie out. He wouldn’t have even thought about that 10 years ago.”

The question of whether Rathbun is correct in his assessment that the church is losing power, or whether the organization is simply changing tactics, remains open. What is clear is that something has changed. “The Master” is not a “shocking tell-all” expose, but it’s not a puff piece either, and it made its way onto screens relatively unimpeded.

Those who simply want to see a good movie and don’t particularly care about Scientology one way or the other may be wondering if “The Master” delivers the entertainment goods. It’s an acquired taste, to be sure. Anderson makes few concessions to dramatic convention, eschewing the typical rising action-climax-resolution arc found in just about every other movie coming out of Hollywood. “The Master,” in contrast, meanders along for a while and then just sort of ends.

In his non-linear style, Anderson owes a considerable stylistic debt to the impressionistic filmmaker Terence Malick, though “The Master” is definitely more digestible than Malick’s recent “Tree of Life.”Judged against Anderson’s other films, which include “There Will Be Blood,” “Magnolia,” and “Boogie Nights,” it may be the best of the bunch. It features what is almost certainly the best performance of Joaquin Phoenix’s career and perhaps the best of Hoffman’s as well. The movie is also flat-out gorgeous to watch—perhaps the last gasp of the nearly lost art of 65mm film making. One thing is certain: virtually everyone who sees “The Master” will find themselves pondering its mystery and strange beauty for a very long time after the closing credits roll.

Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church.