The Master | An explanation
The Master is not simply one of the best films of the year; it’s also one of the most baffling—at least on first viewing. The movie’s peculiar elisions have led to charges that director Paul Thomas Anderson is pulling a fast one. Writing in the A.V. Club, Stephanie Zacharek took issue with critics who insisted on seeing The Master a second time. “What if viewers see The Master once and not only don’t warm to it—or find it engaging in any of the ways we engage with films we don’t exactly like—but also don’t think there’s much to get?” she asked.
In a more generous take at Mubi.com, my Chicago colleague Ignatiy Vishnevetsky described The Master as “a very small film writ very, very large.” In his eyes, it’s only “if you’re feeling extra, extra-textual” that The Master “doubles as an exploration of post-war American malaise.”
Any film that courts ambiguity to this degree is going to prompt its share of too-broad readings; in my original review, I probably overreached in saying that The Master can be seen as being about “cinema itself.” (Though I do think it’s significant that Lancaster and Freddie are both fantasists.) Still, there’s some truth to the claim that The Master is a fundamentally small film. Anderson has always been—to borrow a phrase from Dennis Lim’s excellent 2007 appraisal—a maker of “interior epics.” He's a director who takes the most squelched, internal emotions and presents them on the biggest canvases possible (this time in 70mm); he is not, primarily, a historian or explorer of other macro themes. His first two films, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, are outliers to some degree, but Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood all clearly function along those lines.
The Master does as well. While I’d hardly claim that my reading is definitive (at Vulture, Bilge Ebiri has five brilliant alternate interpretations), I’m taking another pass at the film below. This contains spoilers, obviously.
*THIS WILL MAKE SENSE AFTER YOU’VE WATCHED THE FILM.
Okay, spoilers commence here. With due respect to Ignatiy, I think the key to reading The Master is not looking at it extratextually but textually. While there are historical references and real-world parallels (L. Ron Hubbard did his share of motorcycling), The Master can be viewed on its own terms. Like Magnolia, it’s a closed system predicated on elaborate premonitions, doubling and internal rhymes. You might even think of it as PTA’s Mulholland Drive, with dual narratives in which one strand functions as a sort of exorcism of the other.
“You can’t take this life straight, can you?” Peggy (Amy Adams) asks Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) in his final confrontation with her and Lancaster (Philip Seymour Hoffman). She’s right: Most simply described, The Master consists of two helixed love stories—of Freddie’s past love for Doris and of Freddie’s present love for Lancaster and the Cause. Perhaps the most obvious parallel between them is that Lancaster and Doris (Madisen Beatty) both sing Freddie songs about wanting to possess him. “Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me/Anyone else but me, anyone else but me,” Doris begs. Lancaster, mustering his best Ella Fitzgerald impression, belts a similar sentiment in his final meeting with Freddie: “I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China/All to myself, alone.”
One thing worth mulling during The Master is Freddie's fluctuating level of empowerment. In a very real sense, it's a film about his fear of settling into marriage—of learning to live life serving a master, as Lancaster finally puts it. Chronologically, the first time we see Freddie is roughly 1943 (Doris is said to be 23 around May of 1950, and she’s 16 when they first meet), just before Freddie leaves Doris and takes work as an oiler, in one of the movie’s countless Freudian symbols. While overseas, Freddie receives a note from Doris rejecting him (a development that Lancaster’s son-in-law, Clark, later intuits). Early in the film, in his discharge interview, Freddie refuses to acknowledge the authorship of a letter that prompted a crying spell. The officer interrogating him suggests the missive must have come from a “sweetheart,” but Freddie denies it.
Indeed, through much of the movie, Freddie can’t even mention Doris without flying into a rage. Id-driven and sex-starved, he commits slow-motion suicide by drinking photochemicals and paint thinner—though metaphorically, he’s really poisoning himself by internalizing his past regrets. What’s in this “magnificent potion"? Lancaster inquires. “Secrets,” Freddie replies.
Quackery or not, Lancaster’s processing is a means of forcing Freddie to confront (without blinking) what he’s repressed—repeating questions until Freddie admits that, yes, his past failures do bother him, and that he should have returned to the woman he loved. He’s ultimately cured: In Philadelphia, Freddie’s endurance contest with Clark ends when he's able to say Doris’s name without becoming agitated. Now a true believer, he goes on the radio to advertise the Cause. “It works,” he says in the commercial, noting that he’s added that line himself. His behavior undergoes a radical change, at least for a time. When Freddie photographs Lancaster, and Lancaster is seen to perspire, it’s a direct echo of the earlier department-store scene in which the customer, alarmed by Freddie’s aggression, complains that he’s beginning to sweat.
While Lancaster, who professes to be "in love" when he speaks to his flock in Philadelphia, is almost certainly smitten with Freddie, Freddie's feelings toward Lancaster remain ambiguous. His relationship with his Master runs in parallel not only to the Doris thread, but to his experiences in the military. (When Freddie signs up for both the Cause and the Navy, each is looking for “able-bodied seamen”—a phrase that’s used twice.) Nor is the film short on homoerotic imagery: It’s presumably no accident that Freddie’s processing ends with Lancaster ingesting his new friend's potion and then uttering a distinctly coital-sounding grunt.
The two love stories both involve Freddie coming close to settling, then fleeing (the second time by motorcycle), and then returning after it’s too late. Even visually, the film is structured as a series of mirror images; note how, toward the end of the film, as Freddie walks to Doris’s house before speaking with her mother (Lena Endre), he approaches from the opposite angle we see him use in the flashback toward the beginning.
Freddie doesn’t like the idea of being caged. When he’s in jail with Lancaster, and Lancaster tells him that his “fear of capture and imprisonment is an implant from one million years ago,” he may be wrong about the time lag, but he’s not wrong: His fear of imprisonment—domestic imprisonment—is an implant from his time with Doris.
Part of the key to watching The Master is realizing that Freddie is a wildly unreliable narrator. In the second shot (the first time we see him), we're shown only his helmet and his eyes; as he turns to the side, he seems to be nodding off. Throughout the film, we’re nearly always in his headspace or dreamspace; especially on repeat viewings, one is conscious of how often Freddie is asleep. Some sequences are clearly fantasies—Freddie imagining the women dancing naked, for instance, or the phone call in the movie theater, which ends with a cut to Freddie slumbering in his chair. (He also refers to “my dream” in his final confrontation with Lancaster.)
It’s also interesting to think about the few moments in the film when Freddie is not present. Perhaps the most obvious is the scene in which Peggy—Lancaster’s master—administers a hand job to her husband. Since this bit directly follows the naked dancing, it may well be another of Freddie’s hallucinations: He fantasizes that Peggy is trying to dissuade Lancaster from having contact with him. (This scene is immediately followed by a cut to Peggy awakening Freddie and telling him to quit boozing.) Later, there’s the scene in which Clark, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) and Peggy raise the question of whether Freddie might be a spy and should be sent packing; Lancaster elects to help him, as Doris (perhaps confronted with challenges to Freddie's fidelity in the parallel love story) presumably did not.
Whether The Master ends with Freddie alone again or on the verge of settling is a question the movie doesn't resolve. (See Ebiri's Vulture piece for more on the film's rampant maternal imagery.) But what is clear, after Winn Manchester (Jennifer Neala Page) shuts down Freddie's questioning, is that processing is no longer necessary.