The Master Revealed: A Critical Essay

On his website, Roger Ebert titles his review of The Master, “A magnificent puzzlement.”  I understand why he chose that title, but to me, the cause of his puzzlement has no bearing on the film’s merits, for The Master is concerned not with cults, Scientology, or L. Ron Hubbard, but with two men–one of whom is searching for something to live for, the other someone to live for.

The former is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a drunk who joins the Navy during World War II.  As the film begins, the war has ended.  We can already tell something is off about Freddie.  He drinks some of the fuel as he and his shipmates drain the torpedoes, then he dry humps a sand sculpture of a woman, even fingering her, before walking to the ocean and, with his back turned to us, masturbates.

Women and booze.  They are the only two things that are important to Freddie.  When given a Rorschach test, he sees either a penis or a vagina (or both) in each picture.  He meets with the military psychologist and tries to explain a crying episode over a letter written to him by a girl who is not his girlfriend.  After the war, Freddie finds work taking photos in a department store, but then shows up drunk to work one day after fooling around with a saleswoman in the dark room and picks a fight with a customer.  He then works with migrant workers, but is accused of poisoning one of them after making a liquor concoction for the men to drink.  He escapes onto a yacht, and that is where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Dodd admires Freddie’s ability to put together drinks, and he allows him to stay and witness the marriage of his daughter.  During this time, Freddie also meets Dodd’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams).

The marriage ceremony, however, is not a Christian ceremony, and slowly Freddie finds out about the Cause, a way of thinking that Dodd has created and which is followed by everyone in his family, except for his son.  Early on, he agrees to go through processing, in which Dodd asks him a series of questions, often repeating ones such as, “What is your name?”  The first session goes well, so Freddie asks for the next round of processing.  This round is more difficult, as he cannot blink while answering Dodd’s questions: otherwise, Dodd starts again at the beginning.  In this session, Freddie remembers Doris (Madisen Beaty), the girl he loved back in Massachusetts, though she was only 16 at the time.  He told her he’d come back for her, but he never has, and he can’t answer why.

The boat lands in New York City, where the crew is welcomed into a wealthy family’s home.  While explaining past lives and processing to some of the people there, Dodd is interrupted by John More (Christopher Evan Welch), who questions whether his theories are scientific.  “Good science, by definition, provides for more than one opinion,” he says.  “[Otherwise]… you merely have the will of one man, which is the basis of cult.”  Dodd ends up losing his temper and yelling at More.  Freddie later takes Clark (Rami Malek), Dodd’s son-in-law , to the man’s house to “talk to him.”

They visit another supporter of the cause in Philadelphia.  This is Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern).  During a meeting at her house, Dodd’s daughter sits next to Freddie and slips her hand into his crouch.  He guides it to get himself off, then she goes and joins her husband on the other side of the room.  What does this scene mean?  Later on, when the family is at the dinner table discussing whether Freddie can be saved or not, his daughter mentions to her father that she thinks he is in love with her and is trying to seduce her.  Is this earlier sequence, then, a daydream of Freddie’s (like the one, later on, when Dodd is singing a song in a room full of people, and Freddie imagines all the women are naked)?

It is Peggy who first worries about Freddie’s influence on the Cause.  She tells this to her husband in the bathroom as she jerks him off (the way she does in, in complete control of him and when he will come, says much about how much power and influence she wields over her husband and the Cause).  “Get rid of him,” she tells her husband, “or he will be the downfall of us all.”  She later confronts Freddie and tells him that he must stop drinking.  In his next scene, he sneaks a drink before talking to Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons).

“You know you should wake up, Val.  Your father’s speaking, you might learn something,” he tells him.

Val responds by saying, “He’s making all this up as he goes along.  You don’t see that?”

Then the police pull up to the house.  They have a warrant for Dodd.  While Freddie won’t tell them where Dodd is, Val is quick to betray his old man.  Dodd is arrested for practicing medicine without a license (and taking money for it), but Freddie attacks the policemen and is thrown in jail next to Dodd, who tries to calm him down.

When Freddie is let out of prison, Dodd welcomes him back with unreserved joy, and then they try to help this man.  Dodd has him touch a wall, then touch a window, and explain what he feels, going back and forth until he receives the answers that he wants.  Peggy asks him during a session that feels hypnotic to keep changing her eye color and then to tell her what color her eyes are.

Freddie finally passes the window/wall test and is welcomed by Dodd.  Then, Peggy announces that the second book for the Cause will be published (the first one was called The Cause; this one is called The Split Saber), with a launch to be held in Phoenix.  Freddie and Dodd go out into the desert to dig up part of the manuscript.

It is during the book’s launch that Freddie sees that Val is right (watch his face as Dodd speaks to the crowd).  When the publisher confirms Freddie’s opinion by saying that the book is trash, Freddie attacks him and almost chokes him to death.  Even Helen is concerned about wording that has been changed during processing.

Next is the sequence with the motorcycle, where Dodd has each person riding the motorcycle pick a point on the horizon and drive to it as fast as they can.  He goes first, then Freddie.  As he watches Freddie pick up speed, however, he realizes that Freddie has no intention of coming back.

Freddie goes to Doris’s house, but finds out that she has made a life for herself while he was gone.  Even though he said he’d be back, as her mother points it, that was seven years ago.  She also appears to be afraid of Freddie, but he does not lash out violently.  Instead, he seems to come to terms with Doris moving on without him.

The Cause, however, pulls him back once more, when he receives a telephone call from Dodd in a movie theater, telling him to meet him in England, where the Cause has set up a school.   Though this is most likely a dream, Dodd is indeed in England, where Val is now working for his father, as well.

Dodd’s office looks like something out of Citizen Kane, with its high windows behind his chair, and too much space for one man to need.  Peggy is there, and accuses Freddie of drinking.  Freddie denies it.  She says he doesn’t look well, and he says he doesn’t think he will ever look well.  Then, she states that Freddie is not right for the Cause, as he has no intention of improving his life.  She leaves, and Dodd gives him an ultimatum: devote himself to the Cause forever, in all lifetimes, or leave it forever.  If he chooses the latter, he will be the first person in history to “live without a master.”  Freddie says perhaps they’ll meet in the next lifetime, but Dodd warns him that they will be enemies if he does.  Then Dodd sings, “(I’d Like to Get You On A) Slow Boat to China,” a song written in 1947.  The last few lines are telling:

I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China

All to myself, all to myself

All to myself alone

So, Freddie leaves the Cause.  He enters a bar, sleeps with a woman, and becomes his own master.  Yes, he hasn’t given up booze.  Yes, he hasn’t given up women.  But he has given up control of his life to these things, and to Dodd’s teachings.  He may never be well, but he will never need a cure, either.

To reiterate, this film is about two men–one of whom is searching for something to live for, the other someone to live for.  What’s interesting is that they, in some ways, switch roles.  Freddie lived for Doris, then lived for booze and women, before the Cause made him seek out Doris again.  When he discovers that she has her own family, it brings closure to that portion of his life, and he can live without her memory haunting him from the recesses of the past.  Dodd, on the other hand, found something to live for (the Cause), but then found someone he wanted to live for–Freddie.  The last song proves that he is in love with Freddie, with this man who is very different from the rich and powerful who he hangs around with.  Freddie is all instinct, while Dodd is all intellect.  As opposites, they are enthralled by each other.  Freddie admires Dodd’s thinking, while Dodd admires Freddie’s instincts.  They begin to part ways only when Freddie realizes that Dodd’s thinking is a sham, and when Dodd realizes that Freddie’s instincts means that he will never commit himself to a way of life that requires a thought-out plan.  By the end, it is Freddie who has grown as a person, for he has found a way to live his life free of the influence of others.  Dodd has not, for he must live for the Cause.  Even if he is making it up as he goes along, he is a slave to its ideas, just as Freddie was a slave to booze, women, and the past.  By the end of the film,  Freddie is less a slave to his masters, but Dodd is more a slave to his.

Now, on to the rest of the film.  The songs are period-specific (“Slow Boat to China” was written in 1947), the actors look like they are of that time (not overweight, but not super skinny or super buff), and the music helps set the mood.  By shooting in 70 mm, Anderson makes a great case for every film being shot this way, as the lighting and colors look gorgeous without looking oversaturated.  Notice, too, how Anderson has made the scenes in the Navy adopt the tone and look of old color photographs from that era.  Skin tones and faces especially look wonderful.

All the performances are solid, but three are Oscar-worthy. I feel Joaquin Phoenix, especially early on in his career, would sometimes overact, as if he were onstage.  Not here.  This is the finest work I’ve seen from him.  As one of my friends said, with his hunched shoulders and his somewhat garbled speech, he’s intentionally channeling Brando in this movie.  He should finally get his Oscar for this role.  Philip Seymour Hoffman is his usual fantastic self as Lancaster Dodd, especially in his facial expressions, which can turn from joy to fury to love.  And in her reserved and stern demeanor, Amy Adams is equally fantastic as Peggy Dodd.  One would not look at her in this film and think she is the same actress that was in Julie & Julia and Enchanted.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she won for Best Supporting Actress.

And what about Paul Thomas Anderson?  Here’s a film with scenes that, if taken out-of-order or out of context, would lose all meaning, and yet in context move the movie along at the appropriate pace.  Here is a master storyteller with the camera, and it is his direction (as well as some great editing) that make the movie work as well as it does.

Now, I’m not sure if this film is a masterpiece, or if, like the Cause, it has fooled us all into thinking it’s better than it is.  But it does has a point; all that’s left for us to decide is if the point is stated well enough to earn our admiration.

In order to fill in gaps in my memory, and for additional information about the film, I used the following sources, in addition to the links embedded above:

Wikipedia Entry:

IMDB page, full cast:

Official Trailer:

“(I’d Like to Get You On A) Slow Boat to China” lyrics: