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What Is The Master Really About?: Five Interpretations

A little more than a week into its wide release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has already established itself as that rare beast, a popular film with a lot on its mind — one that bears and maybe even demands repeated viewings. (Critics Stephanie Zacharek and Dana Stevens each have thoughts on whether or not a movie should need to be seen more than once. Our own David Edelstein shares his own thoughts here.) And each of these viewings can yield new and varying interpretations. So, what is The Master about? Here are five potential avenues of thought. (Naturally, there are spoilers ahead. You are forewarned.)

The search for a family and stability.
Several times, we see a shot of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) lying down next to a sand sculpture of a woman. Admittedly, it's a sand sculpture that he humps in the film's opening minutes, but the tender way that he later cuddles up to it suggests that what he’s after isn’t really sex but warmth, contact, family, comfort. When the V.A. doctor asks him about a “vision” that he had, Freddie describes it thusly: “I had a dream. My mother, my father, and me. Sitting around a table. Drinking … ” Then he mumbles something that sounds like either “laughing” or “loving.” At any rate, that’s his vision — a happy family. Anderson dissolves from this scene to Freddie’s new job as a photographer — shooting pictures of happy housewives, happy children, happy husbands. He longs to be a part of this world, but, not unlike a filmmaker, he can only photograph it: Before he fights with the man he’s photographing at the department store, Freddie asks him, “Is this for your wife?” (Meanwhile, somewhere in the background, we hear a baby screaming.) Then, he pushes the lights in on the man, trying to crowd him out, and starts to beat him.

Freddie’s search for a family leads him to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). In the remarkable shot where he discovers Dodd’s yacht, the camera constantly racks focus between a cold Freddie staggering on the dock in the foreground and the happy, warm party on the yacht, with Lancaster and Peggy dancing in the distance: It’s as if the camera (and by extension Freddie) is constantly trying to place them all in the same shot, and failing. Indeed, Anderson keeps these characters separated visually throughout the film. We almost never see them alone together in the same shot. Almost.

In the bizarre, final, cryptic scene in London, when the three are briefly reunited, Peggy first expresses a kind of maternal interest in Freddie (“You look sick. Freddie, you don’t look healthy”) before rejecting him altogether (“What did you hope would happen by coming here today?” To which he responds, tellingly, “I had a dream.”). In fact, this final scene might actually be the only time when we finally see all three of these characters — Peggy, Lancaster, and Freddie — alone together in the same shot. At the end of the scene, Lancaster sings “(I’d Like to Get You On) A Slow Boat to China” to Freddie. And yes, it’s eerie and perhaps more than a little homoerotic, but it also feels like a twisted version of a lullaby — the most domestic and familial of actions turned into something terrifying and strange — making it clear once and for all that Freddie’s dream of becoming a family with Lancaster and Peggy Dodd is an impossibility. And freeing him, ironically, to try and form a new family — perhaps with Winn, the girl he’s met in the final scenes of the film, right before we see him lying next to the female sand sculpture, suggesting that his search goes on.

The politics of cults, and the cults of politics.
Although Harvey Weinstein introduced the New York premiere of The Master with a swipe at Mitt Romney, Paul Thomas Anderson has never been a particularly political filmmaker. Except when he has been: There Will Be Blood might be a timeless meditation on will, power, ambition, and duplicity, but it’s also a startling depiction of the collusion and conflict between capitalism and spirituality in early twentieth century America, with particular resonances for the time in which it was made, when the U.S. was waging two wars in distant lands — one for oil, and another against a group of religious extremists it had collaborated with decades earlier. Not unlike Stanley Kubrick before him, Anderson seems to have an amazing ability to build in contemporary echoes into his films without making them feel overtly topical.

Thus, The Master, even though it’s only tangentially about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, depicts the humiliating yet symbiotic relationship between causes and followers in the modern era, when belief systems are no longer governing frameworks but just software to be renewed and replaced. You can see it in the Master’s irritated response to Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) who, upon reading his new book, inquires about a major difference she’s noticed: “I did note that on page 13, there’s a change. You’ve changed the processing platform question from ‘Can you recall?’ to ‘Can you imagine?’” Meanwhile, Freddie, who never really understands the Master’s methods and has just had to listen to another B.S. sermon from Dodd, beats up a longtime believer who dares to question the Master's rambling text. Maybe this is the way Freddie deals with his doubts, by doubling down on his obedience to the Master.  

True, this is a kind of willful mutability that’s characteristic of cults, but it’s also one of the dynamics of modern politics, where belonging to the team (and defending it) is a lot more important than what the team actually stands for. (Just read any of this year’s election headlines to see political team players defend policies and beliefs they don’t really subscribe to — be they on the Left or the Right.) Freddie is, ultimately, symbolic of the common man who joins a cause not because he believes in it, but because it will have him.

Doubles.
It has probably not escaped the notice of many viewers that, although Lancaster Dodd and Freddie Quell seem like psychological and physical opposites (one is garrulous, confident, and rotund, the other terse, nervous, and alarmingly thin), the film also often presents them in symmetrical shots and situations: Witness the way Anderson films them when they’re in jail, yelling at each other as if each is inside the other’s mind. And let’s also not forget that both men are alchemists of a kind — one has the ability to turn things like torpedo fuel into a delicious beverage, the other has the ability to turn anything around him into a nonsensical spiritual aphorism. These men may somehow be conjoined — Dodd is, after all, the only one who seems to be able to regularly drink Freddie’s moonshine concoctions and survive. (It also helps, of course, that the women around them look the same — Doris, the girl Freddie loved back home before the war, bears an uncanny resemblance to Peggy Dodd.)

If the processing/auditing that the Master encourages is designed to shed oneself of the negative emotions and troubles of our past lives, consider the possibility that Freddie might actually be, at least on a metaphoric level, one of Lancaster Dodd’s past lives. (Which makes the oft-stated question in the film of where they might have met a more haunting one.) If Dodd constantly leaves his troubles behind, Freddie appears to be made up entirely of troubles — the family that abandoned him, the girl back home who didn’t wait for him, the war that broke him. (In an earlier version of the script, Freddie’s alcohol problem was matched by an obsessive need to get more and more tattoos, and his initial hospitalization at the V.A. was due to a rather symbolically loaded ailment — a burst appendix.) Like the negative energy of New Yorkers that collects in the sewers of the city in Ghostbusters II, Freddie is, in many ways, the return of the repressed for Lancaster Dodd — a Frankenstein’s Monster of troubled memories, rejections, and unspoken spiritual longings.

Post-war ennui.
This is, of course, right there in the second shot of the film: Freddie Quell, Navy man, lifting his head above the edge of a boat, looking quizzically out at the world. We hear a lot about the Greatest Generation in the media, but it’s also a fact that many of the men who fought in WWII came home to a world that was rapidly changing and that no longer held the certainties (if they ever even existed) of the war. (“Understandably, there will be people on the outside who do not understand your condition.”) While we do see, over the course of the film, a brief glimpse of Freddie’s life before the war, it’s telling that we never see the war itself, marking it as a kind of defining absence.

What did the war do to Freddie, and what about it connects him to Dodd? Is it worth noting that the cult of personality Dodd has created is, in miniature, a reflection of the political cults of personality — those of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito — that the Allies defeated in WWII? Such things are never stated outright in the film, and we certainly never see “the enemy” in the brief scenes that show Freddie’s Navy stint. But we do see an enemy around us later in the film — the skeptics, the authorities, the doubters who question and challenge Dodd’s power. This is, after all, the age of McCarthyism, of paranoia and fear. Maybe Anderson is suggesting that people like Freddie came out of the war needing both the solace of family life and an enemy to combat?

Acting!
In interviews, Anderson has suggested that The Master followed an even looser development process than his previous scripts, with him instinctually putting a variety of elements together just to see how they would work out. (Versions of the script that were leaked during the film’s shooting were quite different from the finished product.) So, consider the possibility then that, on some basic level, The Master may actually be less about its ostensible story and more about its surfaces. It’s about putting the needy, nervous angularity of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance next to the avuncular, comfy generosity of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, and seeing what develops, what ecosystems of character are formed in the back-and-forth between these figures.

In his excellent analysis of the film for The New Yorker’s website, Richard Brody correctly notes that many of the cult’s therapy sessions look like method acting exercises. Similarly, it’s perhaps notable that Phoenix’s performance seems to represent the tormented, physical acting styles of the latter half of the twentieth century (the Brandos, the Deans, the Clifts) whereas Hoffman’s acting seems to hearken back to the controlled, elusive manner of the previous half (many have described his turn as “Wellesian”). In these acting styles, we see a miniature version of the journey of American society during this period — and, specifically, American maleness. And before you suggest that this is a stretch, remember that this is a director who in Boogie Nights used different porn acting styles to tell the story of late-seventies-early-eighties American social upheaval.

Photo: The Weinstein Company