The Master Mystery: Solving Paul Thomas Anderson’s Many Riddles

Lancaster’s songs. Freddie’s rage. A naked sand woman. We’ve got all your answers

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Weinstein Company / Everett

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix

Warning: Major, epic, comprehensive spoilers ahead.

Full disclosure: I’ve only seen The Master once. I know, I’m a slacker. I have one friend who’s already seen it twice; another who’s gone around the bend three times. And no doubt they’ve already seen things, and connected dots, that I failed to notice entirely on my inaugural journey. But if the spectacle outside the gala New York premiere two weeks ago is now being replicated across the country — gaggles of smart moviegoers, all huddled on the curb, deconstructing The Master’s plot — then no doubt many viewers are asking the same questions this morning that I was poring over.

(MOREAnderson Twofer: Resident Evil 5 and The Master Nail Big Openings)

Part of what makes The Master — as well as every other Anderson film — so exhilarating/unnerving is its enigmatic structure. Two people can sit through the same Anderson scene and arrive at two thoroughly different theories as to the characters’ motivations and aspirations. And yet with The Master, three third-act questions and surprises tower above all others: Why does Philip Seymour Hoffman sing to Joaquin Phoenix in their final scene, why does Freddie Quell (Phoenix) reenact his master’s hypnotic techniques when making love to a woman shortly after, and why does Anderson return in his parting shot to the sand sculpture of a naked woman?

It’s a fascinating, and slightly exasperating, debate to engage, because Anderson’s two leading characters can be processed and interpreted so very differently by viewers of varying dispositions. Is Freddie Quell a live wire — just a ravenous animal in search of raw sensory experiences? Or a lost soul overwrought with regrets? Is he a wounded veteran or a mentally unstable nut job? On the flip side: Is Lancaster Dodd a towering, devout believer? Or perhaps a snake oil salesman, an insecure husband desperate to impress his wife, or a repressed gay man in an intolerant age?

(MOREThe Master: Neither a Scientology Exposé Nor a Cinema Masterpiece)

Some films have subtle overtones; The Master is a cacophony of slight glimpses and echoes that requires time to process. At every turn, you’re first forced to question and reconsider how the surface action links to the broader strokes. The more I worked over the story, the more I recognized the elements of a tragedy. By the end of the film, we realize that Freddie is a man drowning in regret. When he hops on the motorcycle, and is given the keys to his freedom, he finally follows Peggy’s advice and imagines something in front of him — a goal with which he can move forward. But by the time he arrives at the house of his old sweetheart, in hopes of forging that reunion he has long thought about, Freddie realizes that he’s far too late. It took too long. She’s gone.

It’s after this letdown that The Master turns more ambiguous. Freddie dreams that Lancaster is calling him overseas to reunite in Britain (that’s an eerily prescient dream, by the way), and suddenly we arrive to the grand, sprawling office cloaked in shadows — an opulent testament to Lancaster’s Cause. Peggy dismisses Freddie, thinking him a drunkard and a lost soul, all the while seeming a bit territorial — sensing something stronger than friendship between him and her husband. She gives Freddie the ultimatum: If you are going to remain here, you must never leave. And as soon as she closes the door, it’s obvious that this will be the last meeting between the two men. Freddie can’t believe in Lancaster’s big lie, and Lancaster can’t abide having a doubter so close to him. And then Lancaster looks into his friend’s eyes and starts to sing “(I’d Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China” as Freddie sheds a single tear. It’s an awkward moment, as dialog diverts to song, but the swelling sentiment underscores the fact that this is a requiem for a friendship — a love? — that can never be. At first blush, I thought there was something subtly vindictive in Lancaster’s choice of song; after all, Freddie did lose his girl by hopping a boat headed west. But as the verses play out, it becomes apparent that Lancaster wishes he had more time with Freddie, that in another time (or another life), they would be best friends through it all.

Flash forward now to the pub and then the bedroom, as lustful Freddie goes home with a girl he’s just met. They fool around, and then Freddie tries to use on her some of the same therapy techniques that Lancaster first used on him. It’s silly stuff, yes, and at first I thought he might be mocking the whole Cause that he found so ludicrous, as both lovers laugh hysterically. But the longer he carries on, forcing her to maintain eye contact and repeat her name, the more we realize Freddie is attempting to replicate that previous exchange with Lancaster — the emotional apex of the film, when a bullshitting Freddie finally snapped to attention, desperate to purge himself of past pains.

(MOREThe Master’s Joaquin Phoenix on Animal Inspirations, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Pleasures of Discomfort)

And then Anderson makes the abrupt cut back to the beach, during Freddie’s military service, and the sand lady — the same sand woman that Freddie has defiled during his sexually charged eruptions. We see this sequence near the top of The Master, but as the film progresses, and we begin to comprehend just how desperately Freddie misses that girl back home, the sand woman increasingly becomes a symbol for the Girl He Left Behind. And there’s something bizarre/haunting/hopeful about the final gesture we see on that beach, as Freddie lies down next to his sand mate. Unlike the earlier scenes, where he was fixated on sex and straddling the woman, Freddie now lies next to her, calm and cuddly. I couldn’t help but once again recall the quote from Peggy, about finding something in the future and steering his life towards it. What could contrast more sharply with that sentiment than this image from Freddie’s past? From sand women to pub pickups to prophets with microphones, Freddie has been desperate for a mate ever since he ditched that woman so long ago. Even more than sex, he wants companionship. And there’s no going back.

This being said, I’m now more convinced than ever that you probably read it differently. I’m sure we all did. This is one of the great character studies, and one of the great personality puzzles. And I’m betting this openness to interpretation will one day distinguish The Master as a great film. I’m dying to know how you read those closing moments — the swan song, the sex scene, the sand nymph — and also what you thought of the film’s darkest bit of irony, that while the Cause may ultimately be a hoax, it probably saved Freddie’s life. Feel free to share your thoughts (and alternate interpretations) below.

20 comments
PattyCifra
PattyCifra

"The Master" was brilliant. Outstanding in every respect - screenplay, characters, acting, direction, set design, costumes, cinematography.

P. T. Andersen is an amazing, incredibly talented director. His films are so emotionally powerful, mysterious, about big universal subjects with layers of psychological meaning that leave you thinking deeply.

And yes, I agree with rosebud, Lancaster is in the closet, and in love with Freddie.

Though I'm an atheist, the idea that the might have been lovers in past lives is an interesting one!

PattyCifra
PattyCifra

I beleive that's "Citizen Kane" with a K, Scout.

BTW, I thought "The Master" was brilliant.

P. T. Andersen is an incredible talent. How lucky we are to get see his films.



ScoutDedalus
ScoutDedalus

The Master felt a bit like a highbrow version of Fight Club.

I love PTA, but this film was too concept driven--so much so that the concept overwhelms the story and characters; this is a big no-no in any symbolism piece, and a sure sign of an artist that has bought into their own hype.

People need to remember that the film is titled The Master, and, consequently, Dodd is the protagonist. Freddie is representative of Lancaster's regressive self, his Id, etc., etc.

The film has some loose commentaries on PTSD, glorified mental illness and 1950s American male ideology, and Scientology. It also reaches with allusions to Citizen Cane, Streetcar, and a number of other classic films. However, it ends up becoming post-modern quotation soup without a spirit and force of its own. This is disappointing from PTA. His money has made him comfortable and now he is making films with his ego and legacy in mind. Perhaps this is just the nature of the Hollywood beast and most directors forget what got them started in the first place: namely, their hearts . . . and a desire to do some good in the world from making films that reveal truth more than films that stroke a directors ego.

In spite of my disappointments, the film is marvelously shot and the acting is superb.

Too bad being in the belly of the beast for too long has made one of my favorite directors now, sadly, just a part of the beast.

rosebud
rosebud

I just finished watching it and Joaquin's character sucks you in right away.  The master is not just his new found friend, but the only man to talk to him in a way he seems to understand, but give him something to believe in which really isn't the cause itself.  Alcoholism and mental illness and PTSD made would really make a recipe to not be able to adjust back to civilian life. But, Freddie has more going on that can only be expressed in anger and sex.  Hoffman and Adams have a relationship that leads you to believe that maybe Adams is the driving force of the cause and Hoffman is the personality-figure head.  Joaquin has many expressive qualities that Hoffman wishes he could express or wants to live through him in his  behaviors.  And the possibility of a gay love between them.  Everyone wants to have a direction and support and Freddie needed it desperately.  

BrentBomia
BrentBomia

My wife & I watched The Master, and it has sparked some interesting conversation to say the least. I see many posts on this site; many of them quite brilliant. I enjoyed the infantile/animal/man analogy, along with all the others. On the topic of imagination emitting through/from Freddy's character.... On our second time through this absolute mind bending movie, I have interpreted this movie as:

Freddy has suffered a mentally debilitating and traumatizing event in WWII 

This entire movie is a hallucination he is having at a Navy mental hospital that allows the patients access to a beach which is where this whole thing begins...

Seymour Phillip is most likely the Navy shrink he spoke w about his visions of his mother

I read the director of The Master took lines directly from the John Houston doc "Let There Be Light" which is about servicemen who came back with mental illness, and the struggle they had going through therapy (some very intense Im told - I have not seen it, Im going to soon though :) Sucks the Govt buried the flick for 30yrs ... makes one wonder - indeed....


DickDastardly71
DickDastardly71

Perhaps it is all a dream, and through the dream Freddy has become tamed by "the Master" in a much different way than how "the Master" tamed Lancaster Dodd.  But both men saw a glimpse of the other in their opposite, and Freddie, finally coming to peace with his, relaxes comfortably next to his (man's?) "Master."

magicdoors
magicdoors

Coincidentally, I ended up finally sitting through the second half of 2001: A Space Odyssey the night before seeing The Master. In an uncanny way both films structure their ending sequences as a catalyst for endless speculation and interpretation. Mystery is the greatest means of creating a never-ending desire for closure and ultimately a "cult" following but, while I feel like so many film makers have used this tool to cop out, there is something so haunting about both films that they transcend this ploy for me. Actually, I was almost hesitant to offer my view of what may have occurred between the two main characters to my friend next to me in the theater thinking I was the only one who saw the specific narrative that I left the movie with. 

For me the relationship between Dodd and Freddie felt like an unbelievably rare moment in the vast expanse of space and time. It became clear that (based on Dodd's logic) people are like atoms, accelerating, repelling each other, being transferred to some other system entirely etc. and the fact that these two separate beings have crossed paths again is astounding to Dodd who seems to be the only one who can comprehend the meaning behind such a reunion. I also saw the unspoken acknowledgement within Dodd that his teachings were completely false and never took his word as "the truth" within this fiction but, since the whole film seemed to embrace coexistence, it felt to me like maybe his theories about past lives and reincarnation had some truth to them that he hadn't entirely uncovered or believed in himself until he met Freddie. 

Ultimately I put aside my own beliefs (or non-beliefs) and found it stunningly beautiful and strange that Dodd was able to recall Freddie in a past life, and perhaps in more than one. Maybe they were friends working together, or maybe they were also in love. He never reveals what sex they were in this alternate reality, and the idea that one could have been either male or female in a past life is highlighted earlier in the film. So, they could very well have been in a relationship as man and woman, man and man, woman and woman... etc. (or just extremely close friends who shared the love of a particular song). Maybe in this manifestation of both beings they were fundamentally incompatible and that drove Dodd to view him as his enemy out of confusion and lust and Freddie to constantly search for an outlet through which he could experience that kind of pleasure... ultimately never finding it. 

I love the clash between the harsh reality and the metaphysical mystery in this film. And I can't wait to see it again having read all of the above.

Matt Sigl
Matt Sigl

The ending is the key to the whole film. Though Freddie is perverse, we never actually see him having sex with a woman until the end. Instead, the beginning of the film sets up this goal with Freddie's fantasy on the beach, humping the sand-woman. (The whole scene resembles children playing in a sandbox.) 

The Master" can be seen as the story of how this infant/Freddie fulfills his fantasy of sleeping with a woman. He uses the processing methods of The Cause on the English girl to control her and sleep with her. The last line in the film is Freddie's instruction to the girl to reinsert his penis into her. This is human consciousness coming to grips with itself in the infantile development process. Freddie is obviously the id and Lancaster the super-ego. (It's no coincidence that Lancaster Dodd's last name is the combination of "Dad" and "God.") Freddie's first line is that of castration anxiety, describing how to kill pubic lice with an ice-pick. Dodd, the super-ego, attempts to train the id into submission ("my protege and guinea pig") but ultimately wants only what the id wants, pleasure and sex. It's why Dodd likes to drink Freddie's disgusting moonshine and also why Freddie sees the vision of the naked women; it's the super-ego's way of enticing Freddie to believe in him. He even gives Freddie the secret gesture for more hooch in the middle of his orgy/song. Dodd is, in a way, seducing Freddie. Though just claiming that the seduction is homoerotic is far too easy. It's a deeper seduction, a seduction of control and mastery. The super-ego alone loves the id and, deep down, works for its purposes. As Lancaster makes clear in the jail scene, he's "the only one that truly loves" Freddie, even as Freddie experiences violent anxiety about the trustworthiness of the super-ego's claims and demands.   Ultimately, only by breaking with the externalized Father/Super-ego figure can Freddie gain consciousness; he internalizes The Cause into himself. (What, really, is "The Cause" if not that mental object which allows everyone to "believe in something" outside of their own base instincts. Anderson may just as well have called it, in Lacanian terms, "The Big Other.") So, the whole process of human development is completed just to satiate the infantile fantasy at the beach. The goal is not to transform a fantasy into a reality; it's to experience reality as the fantasy. (Again, in Lancanian terms, the fantasy of actual sex, represented by the sand-woman, is Freddie's "object petit a.") In Anderson's vision these dialectics, father/son, animal/man, master/slave, are the core contradictions at the heart of human experience. Christ, this movie was awesome. 

Chris Okum
Chris Okum

Freddie Quell does not exist. He is the embodiment of Dodd's addiction. He is the return of the repressed come to life. He is the one thing standing between Dodd and ultimate success. He is Dodd if Dodd had no control over himself.  He is Dodd in Dodd's past recent life, before Dodd created and took up the Cause. He is the part of himself that he has to excise. Everything up to the first meeting between Dodd and Quell on the boat is Dodd's imagining of himself, maybe a dream he is having. Dodd has fallen off the wagon once again, and is ashamed, and vows that this time he will do battle with the demon inside of him. In the end, Dodd has finally achieved mastery over himself and banished Freddie to the purgatory of his dreams, where he will forever be, closed in an endless loop.

Jimmy Hutchison
Jimmy Hutchison

I saw the film more in terms of the insanity of life and how alluring a master is to each of us in such a world. I think maybe Quell represents Everyman and his/her longing for answers, even if the source of the answers is flawed and dubious. We all search for certainty.  Most find this in religion. Some in science. I myself am agnostic but still search. Living with ambiguity is wearing. I find myself, in spite of myself and my belief in Reason, longing for something more and perhaps reading things into events that may not be there. Maybe Anderson is, among other things, describing that yearning within us all. I'm no cinema expert, so take it with a grain of salt.

Cheree Gillespie
Cheree Gillespie

Or  . . . the entire movie starting after Freddy's molestation of the sandwoman is a dream. Evidence: in the final scene he is asleep, post-coitus, next to her.  P.S.  Freddy is hetero. If he weren't, it would have been the sandman he molested/slept with.

Bmo Fo Sho
Bmo Fo Sho

I thought it was brilliant how the military therapist attempted to treat him using visuals, asking him what he sees (Freddies POV sequence answers that question).  Then Lancaster treats him physically, asking him what he FEELS and eventually obtained outstanding results.  

The superior therapist used the worst means of teaching, manipulation.  Lancaster taught this lost soul how to think, and because of it, Freddie saw through Lancaster's deceptions, which in the end was their undoing.  

I love Paul Thomas Anderson Characters.  There is nobody else in the business that can write a character like Anderson.  And I don't know how he gets these performances out of his actors.  He is far into his journey to being one of the all time greatest names in film making.  I can't wait to see what else he creates along the way

Susan S. Davis
Susan S. Davis

I cannot believe the only comment here is one about spelling. How trivial. And without even bothering to answer the writer's question. In any case, I will express my thoughts. There were so many homoerotic suggestions in this film that I don't even know where to begin.

That outfit in the dessert. Who dressed like that at that time? So colorful and loud - way to flamboyant for a man during that time period. The drinking ... we all know what goes along with that -- and if there aren't other women around, then what's taking the place of that? They didn't need the women because they wanted each other.

The wife was always hostile to Freddy because she knew what was up. That's why she was so upset when he showed up in England. By then, she was probably sure she was rid of him. 

I thought that last song sung was a love song of longing to Freddy. The reason I think this is that dream sequence in the theater -- the Master's voice sounded way too sexy speaking to a man like that -- "I miss you," sounded just like some long lost lover. Realizing it was a dream, it still matters-because it shows that Freddy felt the same way about The Master as he did about Freddy.For legal reasons, I bet PTA could not put anything more than suggestions in the film. But we did see plenty of intimacy. Intimacy that was never shown with his wife or other women. That says it all, for me.

But this film is more than that, for sure. Both of these men were lost in their lives. Freddy craved love and Lancaster craved the same. But he managed to get enuf power to take the place of it -- at least, on the surface. He convinced himself of the type of life he needed to lead at the time. A man devoted to a "Cause" more than anything else. Because I think his whole purpose with The Cause was to "Quell" the impulses coming from his soul and from his heart. He had to invalidate them in order to carry on his life as it was. To survive.

diane.moore19
diane.moore19

@BrentBomia This has to be the worst interpretation I've read yet. Do you really think Paul Thomas Anderson would rehash the plot from Shutter Island? 

BrentBomia
BrentBomia

"Seymour Phillip is most likely the Navy shrink he spoke w about his visions of his mother"

   I think about the comments constantly through the movie by SPH to freddy "where do we know each-other from?"

What this refers to, i think, the navy shrink is trying to get freddy out of the hallucination by trying to get him to remember that he thinks he's someone else, freddy thinks he's somewhere else....THEN PSH finally states, we do know ea.other ... we were both on a ship/Prussian/balloon fliers .... thats the shrink saying to Freddy ...wake up freddy, wake up...remember the ship we were on....during a war .... but it just doesnt seem to work....

WOW - INCREDIBLE MOVIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Read more: http://entertainment.time.com/2012/09/24/the-master-mystery-solving-paul-thomas-andersons-many-riddles/#ixzz2KJ35Bi2U

AlexanderChowStuart
AlexanderChowStuart

@magicdoorsI loved your reflections on The Master. I wrote a brief blog post about the movie (in the context of Lincoln and Moonrise Kingdom: http://www.alexanderstuart.com/2013/01/the-master-moonrise-kingdom-and-lincoln.html) before I saw this article and comments, and I also mentioned 2001 - I felt that The Master very much had that quality of floating in space-time, even though in a completely different context.

I love your words, "the vast expanse of space and time" and "people are like atoms, accelerating, repelling each other..." - would you be willing to let me reproduce your comment about the film on my blog?  It is an exceptionally beautiful and moving analysis of the film.

I thought a core element of the film was the ultimate loneliness of us all, no matter how close we may be to our partners, our children, whatever. We can never truly know anything beyond our immediate experience - although we can sense a greater oneness through meditation and perhaps psychotropic drugs. But we are indeed like atoms floating in this vast cosmos, and I thought Dodd singing "(I'd Like to Get You On A) Slow Boat to China" was just astonishingly moving. The sexual undertones are clearly there if you wish, but more fundamentally than that, it seems to me a cry from the heart for the oneness we (or most of us) seek with other beings - the completeness, the desire to know someone fully, perhaps the ability to clone off and spend an entire lifetime with each person you wish to know and love (in the deepest sense). A lifetime isn't enough.

The "master" that Dodd claims we all are subject to is not, in my belief (as a Buddhist), god, but simply the compulsion to know who we are, what we are, why we are - and who we are in relation to everyone and everything else.

A relationship with a child (I have two young children) seems very much an exploration of something eternal, that has happened before and will happen again. A relationship with a dog can be just as profound - I can stare into a dog's eyes or a horse's (I find them extraordinarily tranquil creatures) and imagine them in another life, another form. Who is the master in each case? My children are the most satisfying reason for my being - I am just as much their "servant" and they my "guide" as the other way around.

Obviously sex is a significant part of the movie, since it is reserved for the closing moments - which reminded me more than anything of a passage in T S Eliot's Four Quartets: earthy, loamy, the yeast from an English pub almost tangible in the air: "Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth/Mirth of those long since under the earth/nourishing the corn."

The sand woman, who by the end seems more like an eternal companion than a bizarre sex toy, again speaks of the loneliness I feel the film addresses - and yet our ability to transcend that loneliness. Dodd at times seems no more real than the woman in the sand - or the visions of himself aging that the astronaut Bowman sees amid the Louis XIV alien opulence at the end of 2001. Perhaps Dodd is simply a projection of Freddie's as he attempts to come to terms with himself? Perhaps Dodd is the master or mentor we all hopefully meet in our journey through life, who enables Freddie to make the sand-woman real, in the form of a drunken tryst with an earthy loam woman who hopes, perhaps with more authenticity than Dodd, that this is not her only life.

Like you, I love the clash between reality and metaphysical mystery in this film - it is wonderful to see a movie again that has the power and depth of Antonioni's The Passenger or Bertolucci's The Conformist or Last Tango in Paris.

I would be thrilled if you would let me reproduce your comment on my blog. Please email me at tranquilbuddha@gmail.com if you are willing. Thank you - and thank you for such a wonderful comment.





diane.moore19
diane.moore19

@Susan S. Davis What "legal reasons" could you be referring to that would limit PTA's choice to tell the story how he sees fit? Seriously, your interpretation is almost as bad as the ones that suggest that the whole movie takes place in a dream.