The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since There Will Be Blood in 2007, appears sparse and at times even cold in the presentation of its narrative, but in hindsight, these adjectives are necessary for the kind of story Anderson is trying to tell.
The Master covers a lot of ground in its 137-minute run-time, touching on a variety of issues—some more clearly than others; however, this doesn’t mean the film gives any solutions to these issues, or even includes an opinion about them. Instead, what Anderson seems to be reaching for is the kind of film that continues playing inside the viewer’s head even after the lights come back on.
The film opens around V-J Day, or the end of World War II, with a group of soldiers killing time either on their ship or the beaches of the Pacific until they’re sent back home. Among these men is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who, it is soon made obvious, is the worst kind of alcoholic—he’ll literally drink anything to become inebriated. Anderson shows him imbibing everything from torpedo fuel to paint thinner throughout the film.
Upon returning to America, Freddie moves through a range of jobs, all of which end in some part due to his affinity for drinking. His final job results in his being chased off the premises, a scene which is not only one of the film’s most visually striking but also important because it sets up Freddie’s meeting with the “master.”
Wandering onto a dock, Freddie decides to stow away on a yacht during a party. The following morning he is introduced to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who, it is slowly revealed, is the leader of a spiritual group which calls itself the Cause.
Dodd, to the consternation of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), takes an interest in Freddie and allows him to remain with them on the ship as they travel to New York. The film then proceeds to set up the relationship between these two opposing men—both of whom need each other but also deeply detest each other.
Much has been made of the ambiguity of The Master: whether it possesses an actual meaning or is merely a confused effort on Anderson’s part.
However, I think the difficulty comes from picking just one aspect of the film and labeling it as the film’s ‘true’ meaning. The listlessness of post-war America is in every scene, especially in those which include Freddie, who seems incapable of fitting back into society.
Simultaneously, there is an earnestness to the film, as many characters look to Dodd for answers for a singular meaning to their existence.
Yet there is also the master-disciple relationship between Freddie and Dodd, their father-son relationship and the deceit of Dodd versus the sometimes sickening sincerity of Freddie. Anderson presents all these facets of the film to the viewer, but by the end nothing has been resolved. The questions Freddie might have had are not answered, and the answers Dodd gives are both unsatisfying and unremarkable.
The Master, in particular the character of Dodd, has been likened to L. Ron Hubbard and the story of his creation of the religion of Scientology. But this claim is a simplification of the film. Perhaps Anderson drew some inspiration from Hubbard, but Dodd personifies an archetype, not a specific historical individual. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to call the film a criticism of or a commentary on Scientology.
I said at the beginning that the film is at times sparse and even cold. Yet this is the tradeoff when creating a film like The Master.
Even at over two hours, Anderson has little time to explore the myriad of themes given. Thus there is a distance from the characters and their various fates. The audience watches them in their desperate search for a master, but how much do we care if they are successful or not? Perhaps Freddie, hero and villain of his own story, merits our sympathy; in the world of The Master, though, sympathy counts for very little, if anything at all.
The Master is Anderson at his most ambiguous—concealing his film’s plot and themes in a linear yet broken narrative stream. The key though is that the brokenness doesn’t detract from the viewing experience; rather, it enhances it. The viewer appreciates each scene because of what it might hold in regard to the multiple interpretations of the film. The Master is a masterpiece: beautiful, confounding and unforgettable.