Divining The Master's Meaning
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- Updated Apr 18, 2013
DVD Release Date: February 26, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: September 21, 2012
Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Run Time: 137 min.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Actors: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Christopher Evan Welch
In a climactic moment from the Coen brothers' dark comedy A Serious Man, an aged rabbi addresses the film's spiritually struggling protagonist by quoting the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love:
Don’t you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love
You better find somebody to love.
The same chorus could be sung to Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, The Village), the protagonist in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Like the director’s previous film There Will Be Blood, The Master is open to a number of interpretations, but the most direct, surface reading of the film is that it’s about a man who craves love in his life. To find it, he looks to women close to his own age, or to much younger women, and even to shapely sand sculptures (more on that later). But this story's focus is on the bond he forms with a charismatic cult figure.
Early in The Master, Freddy and his friends from the Navy celebrate the end of World War II by partying on a beach and building a sand figure in the shape of a buxom woman. Freddy jumps on top of the sand figure and simulates sex. It's not appropriate, but we have no reason to think it's other than one man's ill-advised but momentary foolishness in front of his friends.
Although we hear General MacArthur's prayer for peace as the war concludes, and a radio broadcast that declares "the war is over, peace is here," peace is nowhere near Freddie. His life is about to unravel. He has post-war trauma, and his excessive alcohol consumption makes for a volatile mix. He can’t hold a job as a department store photographer, and he can't resist attractive women.
With little going right in his life, Freddie impulsively sneaks aboard a ship and encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt). "You've wandered from the proper path," Dodd informs Freddie. (Another Dodd statement to Freddie, "You seem so familiar to me," lends credence to a theory that Dodd may be a manifestation of another side, or another personality, of Freddie). To get back on that path, Freddie must embrace "The Cause"—a pseudo-religious system pioneered by Dodd.
What is the Cause? It’s a way, Dodd claims, for humans to revert to an innocent state by getting rid of all negative impulses—from this lifetime or from previous lives. To do this, Dodd leads his followers through a series of questions—the answers to which are recorded—that bring people's secrets to the surface. The intervention is dubbed "processing" (pre-release rumors that The Master parallels the beliefs and activities of Scientology appear to be well grounded). Questions include: "Have you killed anyone?" "Have you ever had sex with a member of your family?" and "Do you believe God will save you?"
Freddie’s answers are “yes,” “yes” and “no,” respectively. He's killed people in war. He's had sex with his aunt. He's more interested in an earthly savior than a heavenly one. The processing session bonds Dodd and Freddie. Freddie needs a father figure, and Dodd needs a loyal follower like Freddie. When skeptics dare to challenge Dodd’s belief system, Freddie assaults them physically. As a result, the price Freddie pays for his loyalty to Dodd grows steeper.
The Master is rated R, and its depiction of Freddie's sexual compulsion is sometimes explicit. This film does not shy away from scenes of impulsive sexual behavior. It includes one scene of Dodd's wife (Amy Adams, The Muppets) reciting a sexually explicit story. Her role in Dodd’s life, and her use of sexuality to manipulate her husband, suggest that she may be the force behind Dodd’s beliefs, exploiting Dodd’s own physical desires just as Dodd exploits Freddie’s emotional neediness.
Another reading of The Master shows the dangers of cults and the way they prey upon people’s weaknesses. When confronted with forces and arguments he can’t deny, Dodd pivots to new beliefs and ideas in order to retain control over his followers. Dodd’s son can see through the ruse, but Freddie embraces whatever Dodd says and proselytizes on his behalf, proclaiming to others that they don't have to change their faith or leave their congregation to join the Cause.
Dodd's one moment of truth-speaking comes when he tells Freddie, "If you figure a way to live without serving a master, let us know. You'd be the first person in the history of the world." That comment calls to mind another spiritual song, this one from Bob Dylan, expressing that same truth:
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
As Dylan is to the music world, Anderson is becoming to the film world: an artist who creates powerful art that speaks to people of "faith" without clearly endorsing any one system of thought.
Like the meanings of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, the meaning of The Master will be debated for years, with some interpretations much more serious and well grounded than others. Let me suggest one reading of the film that surely falls on the "that’s a stretch" end of the spectrum: The title of this work may refer to Anderson himself. His films have become major events, and justifiably so. Based on the three films mentioned in this paragraph, the case can be made that Anderson is working at a higher level than any other filmmaker today, and The Master may be his master class.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; several uses of foul language, including the “F”-word; description of male sex organ; a Rorschach test leads Freddie to describe sex acts; flatulence noises
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Freddie has a problem with alcohol; many scenes of smoking and drinking
- Sex/Nudity: Bare-chested men; Freddie simulates sex with a sand statue; he’s seen from behind as he apparently masturbates, the top of his rear end visible; kissing; Freddie kisses a woman’s stomach after she unbuttons her blouse and exposes her bra to him; she then shows him her breasts, which he touches; full frontal nudity of several women at a Dodd social function; Dodd’s wife uses sex to persuade Dodd of her views; she reads a pornographic story aloud; Freddie is seen having a sex with a woman; she’s on top of him, seen from the side, and her breasts are visible
- Violence/Crime: War violence; Freddie fights with/assaults others; Dodd is accused of stealing from a local foundation
- Marriage/Religion: Dodd presides over the wedding of his daughter; Dodd says marriage prior to the Cause was "awful"; Dodd’s Cause teaches that men must get past negativity to return to an innocent state; a belief in previous lives; Dodd asks Freddie if he thinks God will save him; Dodd teaches that man is asleep, and that processing wakes him from his slumber and returns him to a perfect state; Dodd is said to be a mystic
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Publication date: September 21, 2012