The Master (2012) Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

The Myth of the Master

What is left out of the biographies of great men?

N is a poet. R is a screenwriter. We watch a lot of movies. We also spend a lot of time talking about movies. But we don’t spend enough time writing about them. So we’ve created Double Shot to reflect on the latest movies we’ve seen in our respective mediums, every other Monday from now until the end of time.

This week we’re talking about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Scientology psychodrama The Master.

R: Rewatching The Master in 70mm was the closest I’ve been to a religious experience in years. I know Scientology is a bunch of crazy nonsense, but the movie gets so close to making you believe in its principles of self-actualization that it’s all the more devastating when Joaquin Phoenix realizes the man he’s called a friend/Master has been a fraud all along.

N: The point when Freddie starts to believe in everything is the hardest part of the movie.

I didn’t like the movie when I first watched it but I think it was more because it made me feel uncomfortable and I didn’t know how to feel about that.

After having seen Inherent Vice, I think I understand his style a little more.

R: It makes you uncomfortable because looking at Freddie Quell is to see man at his most vulnerable and afraid. He’s like a stray dog who needs to be taken in, but instead finds himself being manipulated and used by a carnival barker.

And the film, like Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance, is so swamped with literary illusions that decoding fact from fiction requires careful attention.

N: I have trouble with unlikeable characters in film and Freddie is as unlikeable as they get but Lancaster is so smooth talking as he sees something in him, so as the viewer you try to as well, and all 3 end up getting hurt.

It’s a very interactive film in a way.

R: It’s interactive because the film envelopes you into its high minded bromance, and tries to convince you to believe in this man, the Master, knowing full well it will only end in heartbreak.


Man cannot win
if he holds the rule book
behind his back

he is here for survival
earnest, gut-spilling survival
he whispers his life story
each night
adding one more day
of eating, breathing, fucking

man cannot cheat death
because life has cheated him

his eyes open when he sees
light touches his pupils
like fingertips

he is dirty
but somebody must love him

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is more animal than man. He keeps himself liquored up on homemade booze so he doesn’t have to deal with his many colossal failures as a human being. Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is his exact opposite: a man who speaks in paragraphs and takes his literature so seriously he’s started to mistake it for reality. And yet these two unlikely men cross paths and form a bond so great it threatens to throw their lives irreparably off-course. For Freddie this is for the best, but Lancaster has more to lose.

Lancaster’s writing is the basis for a new religion called The Cause (a stand-in for the Church of Scientology), which preaches the ability for the human spirit to surpass its animal instincts and reach enlightenment by wrestling with the trauma of our lives, both past and present. Lancaster describes it as a man lassoing a dragon, and positions himself as the hero leading the battle, giving himself the title of “Master.”

So if Lancaster is the hero who has tamed the dragon, why does he bring chaotic Freddie Quell into his entourage? His philosophy revolves around rising above our animal instincts and Freddie, a raging id unburdened by politeness, represents Lancaster’s greatest chance at legitimacy: if The Cause can fix Quell, then he truly is the Master.

Lancaster tries to live vicariously through Freddie’s experiences, but Freddie’s steady stream of hard-hitting hooch threatens to wash away the illusion of “the Master” he has built for himself. He must remained poised at all times, but around Freddie he can vicariously experience the pleasures of the ordinary man he claims to be greater than.

But the two are diametrically opposed, and Lancaster is caught in double-thought: half of him wants to be Freddie Quell, to be unburdened and free to pursue his bliss. The other half wants to destroy Freddie, to burn him and watch as he rises from the ashes in the Master’s image. Freddie gives The Cause everything he can, but his simple brain can’t wrap itself around Lancaster’s pretentious, self-serving logic.

The more the two spend time together, the more they fall for each other. But they also reveal each others flaws, and for the self-proclaimed Master, that is unacceptable. Freddie is banished because he doesn’t fit the Master’s narrative (that he can cure disease and fix broken souls), leaving the two men adrift and alone.

Many months later, Freddie receives a vision from Lancaster extending the olive branch, but when he goes to visit him, the Master has taken over, and Lancaster isn’t there to greet his old friend. Freddie rejects the Master’s offer to rejoin The Cause, and like a jilted lover, Lancaster strikes back by declaring Freddie to be his mortal enemy in the next life.

Freddie leaves and finally settles down, although we have no way of knowing if it will last. The Master on the other hand is surrounded by his growing empire, but increasingly alone. His final moments on screen are singing a song that wrings the last drops of emotion between the two men, leaving them to imagine what they could have had if Dodd didn’t have the burden of being “the Master” on his back.

Because as much as Lancaster claims to preach about the freedom of the existential spirit, he is ultimately bound by his own narrative that demands some men lead and all others must follow. The biography of Lancaster would never include Freddie, because of the life of this small man doesn’t confirm the narrative Lancaster has built for himself. But maybe in one of their past or future lives, they’ll get on that slow boat to China. “All to myself, alone.”

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