Many times, a film is most compelling inside that beautiful moment of transport evoked by the flickering lights cast across a white canvas. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is not one of these films. The auteur’s latest demands a great deal of attention from the audience and offers only vague clarity of a character’s thoughts and intentions within each scene. In fact, viewers may feel as if they need to catch up to an internal dialogue between characters that does not really exist, a frustrating feeling if they approach each scene seeking a clear statement of purpose. However, the beauty of The Master lies in how the psychological motives of each character take shape as if an afterthought, well beyond the screening. Only after careful consideration does The Master reveal its true nature, a depiction of religious manipulation and the balance of power evident in our personal relationships.
The film centers around a half mad, ill at ease booze hound named Freddy Quell, played with both tenderness and ferocity by Joaquin Phoenix. Freddy drifts aimless after returning from the Second World War, brewing dangerous liquor concoctions full of paint thinner and jet fuel as if he were the Frankenstein of back alley hooch. At the same time, Freddy relentlessly hounds women for sex and bursts into colorful acts of violence when the quiet world he has constructed for himself becomes disturbed. During these opening moments, the score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood builds a subtle tension in each scene and Phoenix commands the screen in a way few actors today can.
Still, while the chaos of Freddy’s soul may be indisputable, the relationships between Freddy and the other characters in the film are forged without explanation, and bend and break in much the same way. Keeping this thought in mind, Freddy meets the charismatic religious leader Lancaster Dodd, played by frequent PTA alum Philip Seymour Hoffman, while down and out on the wrong end of a drinking binge. The two characters bond over Freddy’s “potion,” as Lancaster calls the alcohol found on him, and soon Freddy is inexplicably enveloped in a religious movement involving past lives and the proposed ability to heal illness through their discovery. Freddy does not appear to understand much of what the movement professes to believe, but still adopts the religious doctrine with a turbulent sort of conviction. The key to his devotion has nothing to do with belief, but is initially a result of his quick friendship with Lancaster, who takes him under his wing. However, why Lancaster would show this preference for Freddy is not readily understandable, even by his immediate family. And while Freddy refuses to hear dissent from Lancaster’s detractors, he repeatedly lashes out at Lancaster and accuses him of telling lies.
This lack clarity in the moment pervades throughout the film. In one brief scene, Freddy listens in awe as Lancaster sermonizes a group of followers in a quaint, suburban living room. But when Lancaster tells of the joy and pain brought on by loving another creature, Freddy’s eyes grow dark and his reverence distorts into an expression of grief and mistrust. The scene lasts about a minute, and then the film moves on. True to form, Anderson does not encourage viewers to dwell on the meaning of this sudden change, he only offers the brief freedom of conjecture. And while viewers may easily connect Lancaster’s words to some troubled association in Freddy’s past, they cannot see how that association reflects the distrust and friction inherent in their relationship.
If I am to be honest, I did find The Master grueling at times to watch, particularly during a sequence in which Freddy is essentially brainwashed and indoctrinated into Lancaster’s order. In this sequence, Freddy’s troubled mind struggles to make sense of a prattle of mysticism, while he is forced to see a change of color in a woman’s iris that is not there, or to close his eyes and pace through a living room until the fundamental temporal identity of the room ceases to exist. This practice drags on for weeks, while Freddy repeatedly questions the purpose of it all. At some point I did too. After all, whether Freddy relinquishes control over his life seems at first to be an act of little consequence. Surrounding context would later make sense of this struggle, and as I watched the last thirty minutes of the film, I felt these loose strands of the story come together.
After months spent in quiet refuge, Freddy suddenly abandons Lancaster’s order to chase down the ghost of a former love, only to find the girl gone and married. Because of this loss, Freddy undergoes a subtle but powerful change and his spirit calms. However, when he and Lancaster meet again, Lancaster cannot see this in him and declares him low, sick, and unamended. Without Freddy’s mental turmoil to prey on, Lancaster loses the power in their relationship and so he denies the change even to himself. He tells Freddy that if he leaves again, they will cease to speak to each other in this life and will meet in the next as enemies. Lancaster uses the shroud of religion to reinforce his command over Freddy, to give his demands a moral integrity they do not possess. However, as Lancaster recalls a somber ballad and watches Freddy’s eyes gleam like a ghoul haunting the screen, the entire illusion disintegrates. Lancaster does not fear losing a friend or even a soul in peril, he fears losing the thrill of unconditional influence.
While some may assert Lancaster’s religion was honest, there is no denying the man’s anger and fear when his beliefs are questioned. The more astute read of the film would suggest Lancaster has bought into his lies, and when he is confronted he reverts to anger and a false sense of superiority as a defense mechanism. Still, the question remains why anyone would create a fabricated religion at all. The answer lies in a desire for control, a desire Lancaster himself may not fully understand. But this is why Lancaster calls Freddy a silly animal when he meets him, and why he orates on mankind achieving a higher state of being. Through his sermons, Lancaster holds sway over each of his followers, a master guru who alone can bring them to a place of spiritual perfection.
Every relationship in The Master speaks to a need. Lancaster’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) asserts a startling amount of control over her husband by using her own austerity and zealotry to shape his behavior. Lancaster’s son revels in the supposed knowledge of his father’s deception, feeling a joyous superiority over Freddy’s naiveté. No one can simply live with themselves in contentment, they need another to fulfill them, change them, or justify their lives in some way. To carry the film’s thematic elements to a conclusion, religion is at its most dangerous when it uses this human need to gain leverage and agency. Freddy’s propensity for violence whenever Lancaster’s sincerity is questioned may have started as an extension of their friendship, but slowly his outbursts evolve into a compulsion used to hide his own weakness. It is within this dynamic that a love affair between religion and cruelty shows its origins.
It is no mistake that the name “master” suggests servitude and submission, or that Lancaster is only called master as the film drags on. Clearly, what Lancaster preaches is contaminated by ill motives, and this fact becomes more apparent the longer the audience spends time with him. Once this root deception is grasped, the initial bond between Lancaster and Freddy becomes clear. As Lancaster marvels over the drifter’s dangerous swill, a magic potion filled with poison, he sits in admiration of a fellow craftsman.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.