A lot has been said about The Master’s weaknesses and brilliance. This polarity is probably caused by different expectations among movie goers and film critics — some are more concerned about plot and dramatic structures, while others are focused on character details and development. In this drama written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), audiences in the latter group are heavily rewarded.
The Master is an accomplished piece of work because in the short span of two-hours, PTA raises forbidden questions connected to life’s unspoken mysteries. Experienced through naval officer Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an intertextual of themes nested in psychology, philosophy, history and sociology combine against the backdrop of post-war America. In general; this film involves Freddie’s encounters and relationship with a charlatan leader of fictitious cult “The Cause.” Addressed only as “Master” by everyone for the first half of this film; we later learn that his real name is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Dodd; much like Freddie, has a penchant for the open sea and captains an expensive yacht sailing adrift the eastern coast.
Contrary to popular opinion, this film is not a veiled attack at (or publicity for) Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Although similarities can be drawn between fact and fiction, Scientology and “The Cause”; Dodd’s character is patterned in part on all dissembling notions (be they philosophical principles, cultural movements, belief systems, idols of worship or figures of power) that purport to hold the key that unlocks inner peace and spiritual transcendence. For common men with chaotic hearts in need of hope and harbor, such promise is the equivalent of a mighty elixir.
Story begins when World War II has just ended, and the air is thick with lust and freedom. In a first slice of hint at the Great Chain of Being between angels, humans and animals (and later… manifestations of Id, Ego, Superego in the three central characters); we learn that Freddie is uncivilized and consumed by vice. He ranks at the bottom level with carnal desires.
Two addictions to sin are specifically shown — sex and booze.
1) Out in the open, a female sand sculpture is holding a can of paint thinner. Aroused, Freddie mimes sex and ejaculates into the sea.
2) In a psychological assessment for war veterans; he projects addiction by seeing genitalia in every inkblot, he gets defensive when probed about issues with enuresis and crying spells.
3) In a private tell-all session with Dodd; we learn that Freddie is unembarrassed by flatulence, his mother lives in a mental asylum and that he has committed incest with an aunt named Bertha.
The conclusion that can be drawn from Freddie’s past and present is the portrait of a disturbed and damaged man trapped in Sigmund Freud’s second stage of psychosexual development — unable to control sexual-biological impulses that should’ve been reconciled earlier in childhood.
Another vice Freddie indulges himself with is an uncontrolled urge for poison. He makes moonshine with paint thinner out of every possible item: fuel torpedoes, coconuts, photo acid. This unique talent for concocting delicious booze makes him popular with characters he meets.
These weaknesses and inability to practice delayed gratifications are further intensified when he bonds with Dodd over moonshine, thus giving shape to a parable homoerotic subtext that permeates throughout the film. But addictive personality symbolizes more than just depression and false escapism. Continuing the metaphor for a mighty elixir — the moonshine is a liberating cure for Freddie, as “The Cause” is for Dodd.
There are many narratives attempting to interpret the film title, and they are mostly concerned with who or what “The Master” really is. Is it Lancaster Dodd — literally referred to and revered as “Master” by all his followers? Is it Freddie Quell — his name, onomatopoetic in its quick, amenable sound, strikingly different to the clumsy, daunted quality of “Lan-cas-ter Dodd”? Is it Dodd’s morally appropriate wife Peggy (Amy Adams) — the epitome of conscience and spiritual conduct? If so, does it mean that women are true masters of men? Or is it a salient reference to social darwinism? Perhaps a didactic reflection about the meaning of existence? Maybe even a sexual allegory about dominance and submission?
Questions and analysis surround this thought provoking film; but the essential concept is stark contrasts and similitudes between sociopathic characters Freddie and Dodd, and their aberrant quest for hidden treasures.
In the last act, we watch Freddie Quell hoist a bundle of spades as he follows Dodd into the vast valleys of Arizona. Their destination is a dent in the corner of a mountain whereupon both begin to dig. Eventually; a rusty chest emerges from dry, hard sand and Freddie asks, “What is that?”
Dodd replies, “My unpublished work, my life’s work.”
The buried chest contains transcripts of Dodd’s second book; “The Split Sabre”, which Dodd purports, has answers that free people from past traumas, and teach them how to gain command of their own lives.
The film continues in the city with Dodd publishing his book, and Freddie actively helping with the book campaign. As we return to the same Arizonian landscape, Freddie loses interest during a game called Pick-a-Point. In this game invented by Dodd; players pick-a-point and ride towards the point as fast as possible. Dodd selects “a winding road” and returns exhilarated; while Freddie chooses the head of a rocky mountain and Dodd interprets, “It’s the head of an alligator. Good.”
Freddie races towards it, but didn’t return — they go separate ways.
By the time another memorable scene occurs, years have passed. In a catalytic incident preceding their final reunion, Freddie falls asleep in the theater while watching The Deep Boo Sea (1952). We hear dialogue between Casper and Billy in the moments before Freddie experiences a dreamlike vision of Dodd. In this vision; Dodd suddenly calls from England, expresses that he misses Freddie and insists that Freddie visit simply because they are both “tied together”. As a filmic epilogue to this emotional revelation, parallels emerge between the conversation occurring in the movie Freddie is watching, the dream he is having in this sequence, and the reality of their relationship.
Boy: “Now, for the treasure! “X” marks the spot where the sunken treasure is.”
Casper: “Billy, there’s the ‘X.'”
Billy: “I’ll get the treasure, Casper.”
Casper: “The captain never leaves the ship. I’ll get it.”
Naturally, Freddie journeys across an ocean to reunite with Dodd but they part bitterly when Dodd issues an ultimatum and Freddie chooses to forgo “The Cause.”
When the sand sculpture reappears later, we obtain resonances of an earlier scene — analogous to Freddie’s previous morally deviant act. Both shots are framed using the exact same space in the exact same way, but The Master allows us to register this visual association in a sublime, yet radically different way. The film’s ending seems ambiguous and ordinarily, one might say that a lack of overt resolution is weak storytelling. But a shift towards de-dramatization with a familiar companion of Freddie offers a hint in revisionist bildungsroman. He may have emerged somewhat of a winner among the many voyages impelled by worthless treasure seeking.
Although cinema tropes in sexology and Freudian Trio risk leading The Master into pop culture cliché, unusual and rigorous treatment save the day.
This dark and mysterious film operates on the same level as Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men. In some ways; it can be seen as a synthesized study of trauma, an evolved version of Steve McQueen’s Shame — encompassing larger anecdotes that go beyond PTSD and sex addiction. I find it executed with Kubrick-like precision — impeccably crafted and very, very carefully filmed. There is technical richness in cinematography; film format, musical score and lyrical motifs found within its OST. Together with tremendous performance by Joaquin Phoenix; all elements work beautifully to produce a realistic narrative with layers of meaning that emerge upon the second viewing.