The Truest Meaning of The Master is Also the Simplest… But It Might Not Cut the Deepest
Warning: Don’t read a word until you’ve seen The Master, as this is literally a read-through of the entire damn thing.
The Master doesn’t seem like a very simple film. In part, it’s because it’s not very succinct. At one hundred-thirty-seven minutes, the film doesn’t so much fly boldly in the face of conventional movie economy and attention-deficit patronizing as it does cruise idly past that same face, as slow and steady as the boat Lancaster Dodd rides in on. As that face grimaces, furrowing its brow in examination of the unusual beats wading by, it starts to make assumptions. “There must be a lot to unpack in a movie of this scale,” it would suggest. “There must be a lot of issues at play.”
These assumptions go further once the thinly-veiled contours of Scientology can be recognized. “This is a movie about IMPORTANT THINGS… man’s need for a spiritual life! The cons and restrictions of organized religion! A vast expose laying bare the injustices and mistreatments of The House That Hubbard Built!”
The postwar setting, too, is a fertile period for American films around Oscar season, intent on displaying an important crossroads in the country and addressing Big Issues in Dramatic Ways. In a movie, every decision made in the late-40s/early-50s has extra significance, whether it’s moving to the suburbs or smiling at the nice African-American family across the street. Plus, everyone just seems dressed for something so much more important back then. With the Sunday-best dresses and three-piece suits, watching a movie set in the 50s feels like spying on a funeral. Surely this time period is key to the Very Important Issues of The Master, you think.
A fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s (and I’m a huge one) is prone to squint even harder at the passing shape of The Master. After all, this is the man who made narratives as sprawling and far-reaching as their SoCal settings with Magnolia and Boogie Nights, films that weren’t happy until they’ve exhibited every possible emotion In the human experience… and then doubled back around to exhibit every possible emotion PRETENDING to be every OTHER possible emotion. This is not a man, a movie buff would say, who makes “simple movies.”
He does not. But he does make simple characters.
And it doesn’t get much simpler than Freddie Quell.
In one of the earliest shots of The Master, a collection of Naval officers on shore leave pass the time by forming a naked woman out of sand. Freddie (already made immortal by a frighteningly convicted performance from Joaquin Phoenix) stalks past the men, throws himself onto the sand woman, and simulates sex with reckless abandon and a total, desperate lack of self-consciousness. The other sailors laugh… at first. Then they look around awkwardly. The joke’s gone on too far. Because Freddie isn’t joking… this is serious business for him. He’s gone to war, spent years on a ship with hundreds of men in peak physical condition, but he still can’t convince himself he is a real man. Not yet.
Because Freddie Quell is a virgin.
The Master is the story of one man’s decade-long struggle to finally get laid.
“No.” You might say. “Stop. Nope. I’ve seen this movie, and it’s much, much, MUCH more than that.”
Well, sure, it’s a beautifully detailed and nuanced portrait of a man’s agonizing quest to lose his virginity. This isn’t an 80s comedy for the college set. It’s not about fumbling with condoms until they slingshot across the bedroom. This is serious business, because we’re in Freddie’s shoes, and to him there’s nothing more serious than finally feeling like the man that life, the government, the nation, and a sea of other men have told him he has to be. The stakes are high because this is the be-all, end-all for Freddie. Look at his age. Look at his body. Look at his mental state. This man is dying. He needs this.
Being a man means a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s as distinctive as a fingerprint. To Freddie, it means having sex.
And why would it mean anything more at this point in his life? Freddie is a man of thorough pain and real emotions, yes, but intellectually he’s frozen at a juvenile, high-school level at best. Maybe even middle school. We remember those days. We relate, though we don’t appreciate the reminders, thank-you-very-much.
And boys in high school want to be men, whether it meant achieving, fighting, or screwing. And the boys who think the most about sex… who OBSESS over it… who never shut the hell up about sex… are the ones who’ve never had it.
“Nice theory,” you might say, “But just because Freddie’s obsessed with sex doesn’t mean he’s a newcomer to it. Look at his fling with the shopgirl at the department store!”
Yeah, look at it! It’s a mess. Nervous giggling as he fumbles under her bra, and that night he’s passed out drunk as she plays with her drink. Classic snapshots of juvenile stumbles towards intercourse.
“Well, he tells Lancaster Dodd that he had intercourse before during his Processing interrogations. In fact, they were fairly disastrous experiments with incest. Remember?”
Well, sure. Freddie is a liar. He describes himself as able-bodied as he fights to hold his scoliosis-stricken back upright with both hands. He refuses to take accountability for the death of the migrant worker whose death is directly tied to Quell’s customized alcoholic concoctions. Freddie fibs in defense, like a trapped animal gnawing at himself, and he’s never more vulnerable than when his would be mentor Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, every bit Phoenix’s equal in performance here) grills him with his patented series of questioning called “Processing.” Freddie admires Dodd, looks up to him, is drawn magnetically to him. There’s no way he’d admit his virginity to a powerful man like Dodd, even if the alternative is dredging up shameful old sexual thoughts about his aunt. But we have no more proof that Freddie acted on those thoughts than Dodd does after knowing Freddie for a handful of hours.
Again, think of what we see and what the film shows us. We don’t see him having sex, with his aunt or anybody else, by this point. We are given proof of Freddie’s obsession with sex, evidence of his failures, and his tendency to lie under fire at this point. Nothing more.
And what of the touching flashbacks we see to Doris, the young girl who Freddie pines for, labeling her as his great lost love that he left to join the war effort? Doris, at the time we see her, is a virginal sixteen-year-old girl. Is this creepy, unclean, lecherous and cruel of Freddie, who is clearly older? It feels quite the opposite as we see these two together, really. It feels strangely right. Freddie and Doris are separated by age but united in intellect and experience level. He weeps over the loss of his love because she might have been the only one who wouldn’t find his lack of sexual prowess off-putting, wouldn’t know any better to call him out on it. He reads her love letters, arrested in a teenage concept of romance. If she was seventeen, she might’ve been one year too smart and too worldly for him.
Many audience members and critics alike weigh The Master carefully, attaching stakes to its simple frame in attempts to dissect Freddie’s motivations for staying with Dodd’s upstart religion/ philosophy/ cult mentality “The Cause.” Vulture has a strong case for Quell’s need for a family and his hope to find familial ties within The Cause, particularly his citing of a dream of family love and his pathetic attempt to recall that dream later, his body and mind weakened by booze. But Freddie wants to fulfill his idea of manhood. He doesn’t want to be the little brother of this family, he wants to be a patriarch. And no man is a patriarch asexually. Their potency is evident in the existence of the family itself.
Freddie is drawn to the ship that The Cause operates off of by the siren song of a wedding, the ultimate sexual innuendo. Weddings are the social (and socially accepted) announcements and celebrations of a relationship being consummated, ESPECIALLY by religious standards. Commitment-phobic Freddie gazes at the wedding of Dodd’s daughter with a cocktail of envy and longing, knowing full well what he’s missing out on (it’s not commitment he’s longing for here).
Freddie gets with Dodd and his Cause in the hope of finally getting that elusive transition into manhood. As young women study Dodd’s powerful voice and The Cause’s principles on the ship, Quell writes them blunt notes requesting… well, let’s just say he’s not requesting conversation.
But he STAYS with The Cause because it offers that which every religion excels in: repression. Freddie thinks that, by giving his mind and body over to this strange Frankenstein’s monster of a spiritual life, he can cage and ignore his sex drive and finally end his awkward, painful misadventures towards his milestone. Maybe, Quell thinks, there’s another way. Maybe he can fulfill his personal ideal of manhood without that pesky detail of needing to connect with another human being long enough to orgasm.
As he embraces the sexual repression of The Cause, then, his redirected sexual frustration comes out in a backslide further into alcohol abuse and, most memorably, startling outbursts of rage and violence. These outbursts are around the point where, following in the acclaimed footsteps of There Will Be Blood, audiences might expect the film to escalate into Blood’s fisticuffs and the cathartic release of the film’s unbearable tension through tangible confrontation.
But There Will Be Blood is a fundamentally asexual film, perhaps the most asexual film of the new century. It’s rare in its total lack of interest in sex, relationships, or gender roles – especially coming from the filmmaker who broke onto the scene in Boogie Nights. Its sole interest is blood. The Master has a different bodily fluid at its core.
Later in the film, Dodd’s newlywed daughter feels a strange forbidden attraction to this odd Quell fellow, walking her fingers across his thigh. But by this point, Freddie refuses the call of nature in favor of the call of Dodd, and pushes her hand away from his new position within a tight bottle of repression. For the first time, his dream is within reach, but he’s forgotten what his destiny is.
Despite his gung-ho efforts to embrace the religion’s tight leash on his subhuman impulses, he can’t help but idly sit by and fantasize that all of the women surrounding his new mentor are completely naked, in a shocking shift to Freddie’s point of view that jarringly calls much of the film’s reality into question. As Freddie’s experience progresses, this questioning of reality falls back into questioning his motives. The passive, impotent daydream of a room full of female nudity seems to be his sad resignation to a part of his brain he’ll never fully escape and a goal he’ll never truly forget about.
He even dares to imagine the ultimate forbidden fruit in the nude: Dodd’s wife Peggy (a deceptively willful and powerful Amy Adams, in the reversal of her naïve Christian subordinate from Doubt), several months pregnant and positioned at Lancaster’s right hand. In a candid scene soon after, we discover that it’s Peggy’s right hand with the real sway. She dominates Dodd with a quickie handjob, reasserting his power and duty in The Cause while paradoxically cementing her influence over him.
It’s here that we see the great joke in Freddie’s journey: there was indeed sex to be found within The Cause, as he’d initially hoped, but it’s not intercourse, it’s not intimate, and it clocks in at under a minute.
It’s in considering Freddie’s narrative as a “journey” that we can find a simple handle on his equally simple goals and desires. The character arc Anderson gives Freddie is so straightforward it’s almost comical when viewed through the tired lens of Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth” or “Hero’s Journey,” a theory of storytelling considered by Hollywood executives, development workers, and “creatives” as a jackpot formula for success. If you filter Freddie through the repetitive and reductive map of “the hero’s journey,” it almost feels like Anderson is taking the piss out of Campbell’s theory: Freddie wants to lose his virginity and finally have sex. He goes to a new world first in pursuit of it, then in refusal of it. He returns to the “real world,” but now he can use what he learned on his quest to finally reach his goal.
Quell impulsively escapes The Cause on that ultimate 1950s phallic symbol, the motorcycle, waking up from his repression to remember his single-minded pursuit. He tries to return to the virginal Doris, but alas, she is married. Not everyone stays virginal forever, Freddie. It’s his lowest low, sending him into an undisclosed amount of time spent wandering, drinking, sleeping, and sinking into a defeated impotence.
Upon seeing Dodd again, an impulse is reawakened in him. He turns away from The Cause for good in London, walks to a nearby pub, propositions a local young woman for sex, and…
Well, look. If you view the film through this lens, it’s impossible to view The Master as anticlimactic.
Freddie never could have made a truly intimate connection with his first sexual partner without the tools he learned from Processing and The Cause. He implements them in a scene that is darkly ironic and gently sweet all at once. The troubled, simple man has realized his manhood on his own terms in an unexpected way.
The last shot of The Master is a long take of Freddie snuggling up to that female bosom made entirely of sand. The ambiguity of this inclusion leaves Freddie’s future as unstable in our minds as his past. Will he lie down and rest comfortably beside the partner he always pictured now that he finally got that release? Or is the recall to the woman made of sand a suggestion that the man’s on an endless self-destructive cycle, that he’ll always be thrusting uselessly into his own imagination and an impossible idea of manhood?
That’s open to interpretation, of course, as is the entire film. But from what I can see, the crux and conceit of The Master is an extremely straightforward story of a late bloomer finally coming into his own through the sex act, not at all unlike Anderson’s deeply underrated cult film Punch Drunk Love.
Occam’s Razor is the principle that the answer lies with the simplest interpretation and the fewest assumptions. Yes, applying this theory to a reading of a film feels foolhardy. Film is about layers, multiple engines all working together, and deep wells of subtext. But Freddie Quell is a man with no subtext. He wants what he wants, and even a charming opening line to a prospective lay is more pretense than he can muster.
Lancaster Dodd nearly loses his mind trying to unravel Freddie and find layers within. As the entire film community asks the question “What is The Master about?” we may do well to remember that the simplest, most primal drive might be the answer.
Freddie has a razor too, early on… well, a machete, in fact. As he wields it to open a coconut, we flinch, worrying for his well-being. We can tell intuitively that this simple man needs to busy his hands with a different activity.