The Master: An Existentialist Fable

“If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”

Paul Thomas Anderson never fails to amaze me. With each new project, he sets out to test the audience, to push us farther than he did before. The Master is one of the most difficult films that I have had the pleasure to sit through in quite some time.

When I first saw it in theatres, I absolutely did not know what to make of it all. Did I love it? Did I merely like it? Does it matter? What in the hell have I just witnessed? And why? These were the questions that were floating around in my head after my first screening. Even so, the film stayed with me for months. Paul Thomas Anderson had completely shattered my expectations. I knew that I had to see it again. Two more screenings later, I can finally tell you that I absolutely love The Master.

When we first meet Freddie Quell (the magnificent Joaquin Phoenix), the tortured protagonist at the heart of this film, he is drifting away at sea – his weathered face revealing the sadness that lies within. Freddie is a WWII veteran, obviously suffering from PTSD, who must attempt to carry on a normal life in society now that the war has ended. During the opening moments of the film, we can see that this is not going to be an easy transition for Freddie. The man is a raging alcoholic who brews his own special brand of hooch – using paint thinners, alcohol, and other chemicals – and he may also be a sex addict. As Freddie lovingly embraces a sand sculpture of a nude woman on a beach, we sense his loneliness – the longing for a real, human connection, something that he hasn’t known for quite some time.

Freddie attends a few sessions with a couple of psychotherapists, most of which are futile, as he doesn’t seem to pay heed to any of them. He even attempts to hold down a job as a photographer at the mall, and we see that he has a way with the camera. He seems comfortable at his job, until a drunken tirade with a customer sends him drifting away again, where he ends up working on a cabbage farm. When a batch of his hooch nearly kills one of the migrant workers on the farm, Freddie flees the scene. Later on that night, in a drunken stupor, Freddie casually hops onboard a yacht that is passing by.

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The next morning, Freddie is awakened and taken to the office of Lancaster Dodd (an incredible Philip Seymor Hoffman), owner of the yacht, and a self-proclaimed writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and theoretical philosopher. Dodd is also the leader of The Cause, a radical philosophical movement with many devoted followers. Dodd is immediately drawn to Freddie, and admits that he quite enjoys the contents of Freddie’s flask. He even requests a special batch. This is how the two men initially bond: over a flask of toxic moonshine. What Freddie doesn’t know is that he just may have traded one poison for another.

Soon, Freddie Quell becomes a familiar face on the yacht. The people on board are naturally drawn to him, including Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, in one of her best performances). Freddie listens to Dodd’s teachings, although he never really seems to grasp them. His mind is too far gone. Dodd eventually subjects Freddie to a “processing” session, which consists of a series of odd, increasingly personal questions about his past. Before long, Freddie has revealed some of his deepest and darkest secrets to Dodd, which include a lost love and an incestuous relationship with an aunt. The two begin to bond at this point. Dodd is just what Freddie needs in his life – the father that he never had, perhaps.

Freddie becomes one of the most loyal followers of The Cause, taking in Dodd’s every word, and pummeling anyone who dares to disagree with his master. Aside from their mutual admiration of hooch, Freddie and Dodd have extremely short tempers – both Freddie and Dodd fly into a rage whenever someone challenges The Cause’s pseudo-theology.

Lancaster Dodd is a fraud. He knows it and we know it. Freddie may suspect it, but either he isn’t bright enough to realize it or he is in a state of denial. Dodd’s teachings are riddled with holes, and eventually, some of his most avid followers begin to notice. When confronted, his only method of defense is to attack.

When Dodd is arrested for practicing medicine without a license and Freddie viciously attacks an officer, both men are taken to jail. During their stay in prison, Freddie confronts Dodd about his false teachings, causing a heated argument between the two men. Shortly after, Freddie returns to Dodd, who welcomes him home with open arms. However, others in The Cause aren’t too sure of Freddie. They are worried that he may be insane, and so they agree to subject him to a series of monotonous tests that last for days, in order that he may be accepted by the group again.

Freddie realizes that, at some point, he may have to leave The Cause in order to find true freedom and acceptance. Maybe he is destined to be a drifter for the rest of his life, however long that may be. Either Freddie emerges from this experience a changed man, or he remains the same. Two hours and fifteen minutes have gone by, and we have grown quite fond of Freddie Quell. We want to see him succeed. We want him to find the happiness that he deserves, to have the family that he desires. As human beings, we all long for community, for our own little tribe. Some of us will find exactly that, while others will not be so lucky. These damaged souls will only ever have themselves.

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Maybe this is exactly what made the film such an initially difficult experience for me. I wasn’t willing to accept what I perceived as a lack of redemption in the film. Normally, I could care less, but here, it nagged at me. And then later, as I pondered, I realized that we can, in fact, have that in The Master if that is what we choose to see. By the end of the film, either Freddie is a free man – spiritually and emotionally – or he is a slave to himself.

Or is he simply an eternal seeker? And does his life merely represent a never-ending quest in the search for truth?

In two hours and fifteen minutes, we are denied easy answers and pat resolutions. Does Freddie emerge from this experience a changed man, or does he remain the same?

The answer is left entirely up to you.

One thought on “The Master: An Existentialist Fable

  1. This movie really hit me hard. If you do not realize it yet, it is based off of Scientology founder Ron. l. Hubbard. Personally, I spent 6 months in scientology rehab named Narconon is Fort Collins Colorado. In those 6 months I did the exact same exercises Freddie submitted too in “the cause”. They are called ‘training routines.’ I sat in the chair for two hours, walked back and forth to touch the wall. Responding to these comands in order to confront my heroin addiction. I graduated at 180 days after completing withrawl, literature and very disturbing rountines Ron. l. Hubbard (or Dodd in this movie) created. His books are published and taught. These crazy exercises are real. And it left a horrible impact on my soul. It cost my family 34,000 for this treatment. Just thought you should know this is done today.

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