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.

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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?

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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.

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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.