The Master: It Fell Out, Stick it Back In


The Master (2012), written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Almost all of the films Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) has made thus far put the family, as an institution, into question. His lead characters, usually male, are either abandoned sons who are looking for the (surrogate) fathers or vice versa. In Sydney/Hard Eight (1996) an older gambler, Sydney Brown (Philip Baker Hill), takes John Finnegan (John C. Reilly) under the wing, as his protégé, offering to teach him how to earn money and survive. In Boogie Nights (1997) the rising porn star Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) finds the father figure in Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and a new family in pornographic film industry people. Magnolia (1999) embodies every disfunction you can think of. In There Will be Blood (2007) the oil prospector, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) adopts an orphan boy by the name of H.W. (Dillon Freasier) whose father died in a drilling accident only so he would later reveal that he was merely using the boy in order to gain sympathy and trust from the investors.

Furthermore, majority of his characters are going through some form of identity crisis whether it be the very literal split, a detachment from your past self or a self-identification with a popular image, another body, part of your own body or inability to identify with your own body. In Boogie Nights for instance, Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) is unable to embody the black, masculine ideal. A stereo salesman by day, Swope’s music of choice is not the funky sounds of Earth, Wind, and Fire but rather, a pure country. His trajectory throughout the film is one of looking for identity. However, by the end, Buck finds a way to deal with his outcast status and he embraces who he really is after a violent encounter in a doughnut shop. His tale stands as a contrast to protagonist Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) a rising porn star whose self-identification with his sizeable resounding genitalia becomes in a way his own demise. The identity crisis is also related to the masculinity shift that occurred during the period of what we might call Clintonite cinema. The image of “the hard body” epitomized in such character as Rambo (Silvester Stallone), the soldier who single-handedly wins the war, was replaced with Private Witt (James Caviezel) who instead questions the morality of his actions when confronted with the war and his enemy:

We were a family. How’d it break up and come apart, so that now we’re turned against each other? Each standing in the other’s light…. This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed through this night? (Malick, Thin Red Line (1998))

Fourteen years later, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) one of these soldiers who, unlike Witt, managed to survive the war have found himself back home, lost in the struggle to find a place in the post-war society. His name is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and he is a nomadic, sex-obsessed, alcoholic World War II veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress. As such he becomes, only seemingly, an easy target of Lancaster Dodd, the pseudo-scientific thinker and the charismatic leader of an emerging cult called “The Cause”. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is in his own words: “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher”, whose character was loosely based on L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Freddie’s inability to define for himself who he really is – is he Freddie the sailor, the seaman masturbating on the beach or is he Freddie the magic-potion maker or Freddie the department store photographer, Freddie the orphan, Freddie the former soldier, Freddie the bum – is what makes him an easy target for the sugar coating Dodd. What makes things even more interesting is that he is the binary opposition of Dodd, an alter ego of some sorts, seen as the animal that needs to be tamed [1]. Somewhat logically, Dodd decides to make poor and above all lost Quell, a project of his subjecting him to a series of bizarre exercises called Processing (a flurry of disturbing questioning aimed at conquering Freddie’s traumatic past) but his failure to indoctrinate, to unleash his mastery upon this troubled man’s mind forms a backbone of this enthralling drama. Moreover, since Freddie is wiser than Dodd; Freddie possesses certain innocence, something that cannot be easily seduced. And soon after he realizes that the relationship he is developing with Dodd is the effect of his personal heartbreak, the missed chances he had in a lifetime of regret and therefore he knows that time has come, the time to sail away, yet again.


The America portrayed in The Master, although set in the 1950s (Eisenhower era), is nothing like the romanticized image of George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1976), which despite being set in the 1962 was in fact also depicting the Eisenhower time. Paul Thomas Anderson’s America seems like some other planet that just oddly resembles ours. This notion is primarily epitomized in Freddie. There’s something about Freddie Quell that keeps him from fitting in to Paul Thomas Anderson’s postwar world. Although he resembles many of the noir figures that populated postwar films – from Orson Welles as Michael O’Hara, climbing on board in The Lady From Shanghai to Frank Chambers, the drifter in The Postman Only Rings Twice – namely because he too is disconnected from the new America and is looking for trouble, the life Freddie lives is the life led in a different moral universe than these characters. Furthermore, in the great postwar noirs, the hero chooses his fate. But Freddie is a drifter, a creature of instinct and the more you look at him the more he seems to belong to an earlier pre-war world of migrant workers. His time spent as worker on the cabbage plantation, seems as time spent right in the heart of Steinbeck country. The characters he meets on his Odyssey-like journey all look like they stepped out of a Dorothea Lange photographs. At the same time, Freddie can be both, Anderson’s father[2] and Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty from Kerouac’s On the Road. But he can also be just Freddie, a vagabond, the sand sculptor who is mimicking sex with his sculpted woman, a scene which oddly resembles now famous Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr beach scene in From Here to Eternity (1953) but also a scene that provides the context as to how we are suppose to see Freddie, as a soldier who has spent 4 years surrounded by other men, naked at times. The appearance of other texts, the intertextuality, as wells as reflexivity and mixing of film genres is symptomatic of films made by Video Generation of film directors. Paul Thomas Anderson, although more subtle, is no exception.

Next, almost all of these films show how contemporary life and contemporary cinema depict the certain erosion of old-fashioned moral principles. In other words, what was morally unacceptable in film or television in mid of 20th century today became almost an imperative. Events are told from the perspective of an antihero. Crimes go unpunished. Criminals and murderers are portrayed as likeable villains. This altogether then leads to relativism of morality. For example, to sow the unbeliever embodied in unscrupulous oilman, a plain-speaking prophet after profit, aptly named Daniel Plainview,[3] who after deliverance of his now famous speech: “I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” brutally kills a priest with a bowling pin, some fifty years ago would be, at best, inconceivable. The Master, although not as brutal and violent, is not far behind. And if Freddie is Dean Moriarty then Dodd has to be Sal Paradise, Kerouac himself. But this relationship is a bit stranger. The bizarre dialogues, we have witnessed in PTA’s previous achievements are still ongoing here and just as Plainview exhibited his ability to drink another man’s milkshake, Dodd takes it a bit further by singing how he would like to get Joaquin Phoenix on a Slow boat to China thus creating a very bizarre and uncomfortable scene implying an erotic friction in their already curious homo-erotic partnership.

Just like in his previous There Will Be Blood, this film suggests a pre-American-history and just as in that film (or any other Anderson’s film) the quasi-father-son or surrogate-father-son relationship becomes the core of the story. I will dare to say that The Master can be seen as some sort of non-canonical sequel of There Will Be Blood. Both films gave us a vivid portrayal of the other, darker side of what it means to be the American or what the American dream, as such, is all about. And if There Will Be Blood was about entrepreneurial capitalism then The Master is about entrepreneurial religion. Dodd, like Plainview, is first and foremost an entrepreneur, whose aim is prospecting from his preaching. Hobbard was a writer of pulp fiction, especially science fiction, therefore it comes as no surprise that this new religion came out as amalgamation of bits and pieces, this and that taken from already established religion and popular culture. But The Master is not about Scientology. The Master is a character study of two men, who both possess some peculiar talents. Quell, intoxicated by his master’s rhetoric shows a mastery on an almost equal footing. He is not that good with words though but his ability to create a magic potion out of pretty much anything that comes to your mind (medicaments, bathroom cleansers, fruit and so on) makes him a genius in his own right and the soul of The Cause parties on a slow boat to China. Dodd and Quell thus become like Bradhsaw brilliantly put it “the match made in sociopath heaven”.

Furthermore, Paul Thomas Anderson vividly and briliantly portrays the imprisonment of the human body for we all live in our private hells.

People don’t really seem to like The Master because according to them nothing really happens. I am really not sure if I am able to follow this. Maybe the reason lies in the fact that PTA is not assuming a role of all-wise-storyteller who has masterfully figured it all out and just for us as a good Samaritan. No. He doesn’t assume any position. He doesn’t tell us what to think or how to think. What he does is asking questions. And the questions he asks are all the right ones. Can we live without a master? Any master? Be it God or Father, Wife, Religion, country and so forth. What is the essence of friendship? Any friendship? How do we chose? How do we resist and are we able to do so? And this is just one of the reasons why The Master came out as such a refreshment in the series of some bad movies we have seen this year. It is bold. It is weird. It is beautiful. It is smart. It is bizarre. It is curious. It is funny. It is disturbing. But above all, it seeks mature film audience. It is designed to challenge and frustrate. There is no simple answer. There are only questions….You are taken on Freddie Quill’s Odyssey through what we have come to know as 21st century America. An odyssey of a man, a hero or better yet an antihero abandoned by his society and accepted by the master, who never quite assumes that position. Two leading men are proven themselves to be among the most talented actors of today. The screen is theirs and you are drawn into their bizarre and profound relationship. Joaquin Phoenix’s come back is beyond I could’ve ever anticipated. Amy Adams, who plays Peggy, Dodd’s wife, is so good, yet in a very disturbing way. There is one scene in particular I am thinking of – The bathroom scene. For those of you who have seen the film already, well you understand what am I talking about. For those of you who didn’t have the pleasure, well, you will. Furthermore, it is far from being rendered as just ‘The Scientology movie’. If you go to see it with these kinds of expectations and with this idea in your mind you will be disappointed. So, clear your head and just let go…to this profound portrait of two men that are not tied to America exclusively because they can be found in any of us, literally. Bizarre speeches continue in Andersonesque way and the ending, or better yet the very last line uttered by erratic Freddie is perhaps one of my favorite lines in the history of cinema. Next, the names PTA choses for his characters are also always of some importance. I will just single out one for now – Win Manchester. Win stands for Winifred, which means blissfully blessed but it can also be read as Freddie’s Win and Manchester stands for breasts. Therefore, it is Freddie Quell who wins at the end becoming the master, in his own right, blessed among the naked women…

I have seen The Master almost three months ago and I still think about it, perhaps even exponentially. And I can say, with full certainty, Paul Thomas Anderson is among rare American directors who with each new film grows himself higher. Needless to say, The Master is my favorite PTA film and to my mind, rightfully, the best he has made thus far. Smart and bold, like film should be.

In conclusion, if someone is, by any chance, to create The Master Cult, please give me a call, because I am in!

[1] This contrast is best seen in my favorite scene of the entire film – the jail scene. After Dodd gets arrested for fraud and Freddie for attacking the policeman to protect his master we see both man behind bars in adjacent cells. Frame perfectly on the screen, we are enabled to see these dichotomies clearly. Dodd, leaning on the right side of the screen is as calm as ever, his voice is relentlessly steady. On the other hand, the left side of screen is frantic. Freddie literally goes crazy, like a wounded animal in cage. Logic kicks in and he demands from his master to tell him something that is true, to give him something he can hold on to if he is to be his friend and companion. 

[2] Anderson’s own father served in the Pacific, and he has said that afterwards he “was restless his whole life.” The identification between the two is strengthened when you notice that Freddie comes from Lynn, Massachusetts, Anderson’s father’s hometown.

[3] Daniel – in Hebrew it means prophet. Prophet with a simple view (plain view) onto the world.

Text written by: Monika Ponjavic


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3 thoughts on “The Master: It Fell Out, Stick it Back In

  1. Pretty well put on a lot of points, which makes me curious what you’d think of my latest analysis of the film. I’m pretty much stuck with no one to talk with about this movie in depth and lenght, so yeah, would appreciate it if ya check it out. Starts off a bit slow I guess but later on it picks up and delves (or tries to) into some surprising discoveries of intentional use of subliminality between this and TWBB.

    • mognetic says:

      I read it…And I have to tell you two things. First, it is a bit too long and second it is all over the place so its a bit hard to follow. The latter in a sense that you have so many good points but they get lost in a vast amount of words..It took me some time to read it and grasp what you want to say. Its the matter of the writing style,I guess. Perhaps if you would decide what are the points you want to single out and talk about and then if you would shape each point in a separate paragraph so that each paragraph can stand on its own. There is so many information to get the hold of on first reading and it shouldn’t be like that I guess. I guess just more focus.
      As for the analysis there are parts I agree with and parts I don’t. So I will just stay with those I don’t agree with. While I also see a lot of references in The Master I cannot see the monolith resemblance with Freddie’s naked sand girl. Sure, it is his object of desire, his focus of attention, elaborate device of his character, what makes him the animal and so on…but I don’t believe PTA went that far to identify the sand girl with the monolith. What you are saying can be read like that but then again everything can be read like that….in every single film we are seeing these days…To me it seems a bit forced. Just as the connections between all PTA films. Yes, I agree that he has certain topics which he explores in great detail and yes there are a lot of similarities and I also see his films as a sequence of the events or images or stories however you like to put it…but somehow you went so far in trying to connect them, on so many levels, and I am not sure if we are suppose to watch The Master in relation to any other film he has made before. This one is different. In rhythm, in questions it provokes, in style…the themes are the same but I do not know…I think I need to read your text again. And I am going to cinema tonight for the third time in the last 4 months to see it again. I saw it in two different cities thus far…Will you give me some time to give you a proper response because I really liked some points you made but I also strongly object to some others…and we both love the film I suppose. I mean its my favorite PTA…
      So, will you give another day to dwell on it?

      • Are you serious, I’m already baffled by the amount of attention you gave to it so far! I still stand strongly behind the monolith thing, allthough I don’t truly insist other people to use the same word. On one hand, the long line of references to Kubrick in his previous works and this one gives me no reason to exclude the sand girl as a potential monolith (concidering all visual/compositional throwbacks and all), on the other – the whole thing really shouldn’t hinge on whether you’d really accept her as his monolith or Split Saber as Dodd’s. The most important connection I wanted to make was how these objects/elements (often not even material) were something the characters foolishly perceived as means of happiness (but in reality they weren’t). In the end I simply wanted to spell out (the long and hard way) what I think PTA is all about. There’s paralels I haven’t yet made but I know they’re out there. Some paragraphs are just kind of ‘thrown in there’, since I mostly wanted to make it into a simple list of references, which then turned out into a full blown analysis.

        Concerning the structure and the train of thought – yeah, english isn’t my native so I still have a pretty hard time making the text flow properly. Also, the article took me 3 days to write so after that I really was too tired to make many corrections. I know I’ll have to at some point (would be better before you come back to it), since I also have several minor things to add too.

        On the matter of ‘reaching too far’, I’d like to say that I’m also very obssessed with Kubrick’s work and that is a topic where one’d always discover intentional use of seemingly ‘coincidential’ elements. Things that, if digged deep enough, enough reason is found to think that they’ve had a very defined purpose. In my analysis I reffered to Rob Ager’s “Clockwork Orange” section. If you read that, or check his channel on youtube and his work on either The Shining or any other film, you’d eventually notice how through extremely detailed research he always makes things add up and always exposes grounds for some Kubrick-agenda. I wanted to follow that kind of analytical process to see where it might get me (the Bill William thing for example seems incredibly far-fetched even to me and yet it’s from a long line of coincidences, just like with Kubrick. And we both know the filmmakers always deny that certain ‘intentional’ element like magicians wouldn’t want to reveal the secret to their trick. I’ve actually read (and I’d like to be one some day so I can imagine) how filmmakers find it undignifying to explain themselves and their technique and their use of cinematic devices through admitting in literal fassion what a certain directorial decision was about, assuming it’s one already controversial. For example, PTA says how they picked the sea water shots just because they looked so beautiful, but how would that matter in the end if it not only contributes to the interpretation of the film but is also essential to it? Not to mention that filmmakers do sometimes make unconscious/inspired choices/decisions, but they let them stay in the film only once they’ve realized and calculated the result of that and their potential place and function in it.

        ANYWAY! I’m very grateful for your time. With my article I just wanted to describe the weight of PTA’s ‘man needs man’ message, but I couldn’t see how a few words would’ve been enough for that. I mostly went into dissecting the intertwined structure of TM and TWBB just to prove exactly how intentional his approach is to whatever happens in his films, to THEN let my thesis feel true. Then I saw your article and it seemed well written and different from most I’ve already read on wordpress and I got intrigued.

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