Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an often impenetrable movie, its characters—masters of obfuscation, all—shroud themselves in secrecy and purposeful vagueness in much the same way their real-life counterparts did. Forget the Church of Scientology, though. If you go into this film looking to see how Anderson does or doesn’t explore the motivations of a man like L. Ron Hubbard, you’ll only end up lost. The Master is a movie involving a cult. For it’s members, it is The Way, not The Cult. That’s how all cult members see their cult of choice, and that’s all anybody can really say about the subject-at-large. Instead of considering The Master as a film about a cult, think of it as a film about the strange, seemingly incongruous relationship between the man at the helm of a burgeoning movement and another man who is very much an outsider. The common denominator between the two? Magnetism.
Of course, magnetism is what draws devotees to a master, but Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a rabid, masterless animal whose primary concerns are sex and alcohol. In the Navy, as a department store photographer, working fields in California, Quell is an artist of unorthodox liquors, guzzling rocket fuel, paint thinner, mouthwash—everything but beer, whiskey, or wine, so long as he remains in a pleasant stupor. The men and women Quell works with are inexplicably drawn to Quell and his potions, surrendering sex and sense for the stuff in Freddie’s flask. That some people end up dead after drinking his liquor is of no greater consequence to him than a morning hangover, the realization that he can’t remember his evening. That a migrant worker dies because of Freddie’s mixture has him on the run, but fortune smiles upon him: he stows himself aboard a private yacht belonging to a wealthy author who agrees to take him on as a seaman so long as he produces more of “that wonderful potion.”
The author in question is Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man who claims that his books hold the key to humanity’s shedding its animaistic urges and ascending to a higher plane of being. He’s promised the world—and his growing group of followers—a sequel that will reveal more of what’s necessary. On the boat, he entertains guests by day and locks himself in the study at night, working on the book. Then he finds Freddie. Freddie with his potions. Freddie the animal. Freddie whose conversion to Dodd’s way of thinking would represent a major breakthrough for The Cause. Freddie who hasn’t felt at home, who hasn’t been purposed, since returning from the war. Lancaster Dodd offers Freddie Quell a home and a purpose. Of course he joins.
Inevitably, this has repercussions neither party foresaw, though it’s probably worth questioning if Freddie thinks any of his actions through before undertaking them. Dodd has in Quell something of a Pit Bull, an animal who lashes out to protect his master. A man like that has his uses, but if the aim is to civilize the beast within Freddie, his boorish behavior isn’t helping. Dodd, staring into the jagged, broken crevasse of Quell’s face, must wonder if his new devotee hears his message, or if he merely pretends to, having no other place to go. Freddie, meanwhile, takes to the rituals and routines of The Cause like a tortured psychiatric patient, which, I would argue, he is. The film’s best sequences have Dodd and Quell seated across from one another, Dodd pestering Quell with a series of questions, statements, or tasks. His rules are strict. If Freddie makes an error, they begin again. Freddie makes many errors. Dodd’s relentless calm taunts him. Quell breaks down. Screams. Cries. Pours forth stories he’s never told anyone. Then Dodd asks if he’s a liar. They begin again. Sometimes Dodd’s son-in-law (Rami Malek) is in the room with him as an agent provocateur, theorizing about and insulting Freddie as he calmly tries to take this round of abuse. He’s often unable to sit through the first sentence, having already jumped to the conclusion. They begin again.
The impenetrability of The Master, whatever the codified messages contained in the mostly un-preached-from books of The Cause stand for, are subterfuge for a narrative mostly concerned with the deeply intense relationship that quickly develops between Dodd and Quell, who find themselves wrestling—sometimes literally—with opponents they’ve grossly underestimated. This is most evident observing the behavior of Dodd, the man who wants to cure man of its animal impulse. The façade he’s built and strengthened, the movement he’s grown, the success he’s experienced, all that comes under fire as it becomes more and more clear that Freddie isn’t improving, that the methods of The Cause are inspiring little to no change him. The pressure this causes leads Dodd—who flawlessly presents himself as an erudite man of class and good standing on most nights—to blow-up at the timid followers who know more about Dodd’s Cause than he does, rebuking them more harshly than he does Freddie because, unlike Quell, they won’t fight back.
Quell, either because he wants to ride this train as long as possible or because he really does see The Cause as a way to better himself, finds temptation everywhere. Despite the war and his behavior, women are drawn to him. There’s always a steady supply of alcohol, always a man who needs to be assaulted to protect Dodd’s interests. Dodd tries breaking Quell’s behavior through the endless repetition of question and task, often leading Freddie to bash his head against the wall. Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams)—Lancaster’s wife—takes a more direct approach as members of The Cause grow increasingly wary of him, threatening abandonment if he can’t stop drinking. He agrees, but, again, Freddie’s a liar. He can’t stop himself from drinking anymore than he can stop Dodd’s daughter (Ambyr Childers) from flirting with him. Both, after all, are methods of escape Freddie has experience with, that he knows will feel good, even if only for a little while.
It won’t take much deep reading to see Peggy as the true driving force of The Cause, a woman who knows she’s married to a fraud and has every intention to continue perpetuating it. She drives Dodd to write, pushes him across country to promote his teachings, perceives the damage Freddie has caused them. Lancaster’s actions are not those of a man who is the master, but of a man who finds himself serving two taskmasters: his wife, and his mission to cure Freddie. One has to give. When he hugs Quell, congratulating him on finally passing examination, it is very much like the kiss Judas gave to Christ, simultaneously a knife in the back and an act for those around them left not bleeding. Really, the hug is meant to assuage Freddie Quell’s growing doubt and rage, but Dodd has made another critical underestimation of his pupil, not nearly the simpleton rube he seems.
Plenty has been written about Paul Thomas Anderson’s decision to film The Master in 65mm, both in terms of how the format may have been wasted on a film that doesn’t spend much time outdoors, and how the increasingly rare process draws the viewer into the landscapes provided by Hoffman and Phoenix. The way a film is shot often rates as minutia, but here, I think is purpose. There’s an intensity between the characters that matches the scope of the screen, the two men struggling with their need and desire to conquer each other, the woman losing sight of the small empire she’s built. The triangle between the three is not unlike the relationships between characters in a D.H. Lawrence novel: there’s a sexual charge to the proceedings, but the men lack the vocabulary necessary to trigger any release. Anderson’s focus on interior space here also recalls Lawrence, making the brief interludes when the film opens to wide spaces—the ocean, the desert—all the more terrifying. As Freddie rides a motorcycle out to the vanishing point, leaving Lancaster Dodd and his family to observe him growing smaller and smaller in the distance, the silent space between the two men could suffocate them both.
The Master. With Joaquin Phoenix (Freddie Quell), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Lancaster Dodd), Amy Adams (Peggy Dodd), Laura Dern (Helen Sullivan), Ambyr Childers (Elizabeth Dodd), Jesse Plemons (Val Dodd), and Remi Malek (Clark). Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson from a screenplay by Anderson.