Those who admire the films of Paul Thomas Anderson are no strangers to the labyrinths his thematic puzzle boxes construct — one could probably watch Magnolia half a dozen times in the span it would take to unravel all of its mysteries — and yet, The Master lingers tantalizingly even above this, the most oblique and elusive of all his work. For a film that feels so assured of itself, one so obviously saying something, it’s almost mirage-like in its refusal to fully reveal itself. I’ve always loved The Master, but I’ve never understood it.
I’ve wondered whether this is perhaps by design, whether its desire to remain a mystery reflects a greater cosmological mystery. Understanding the film is futile, perhaps, because the film feels that understanding is itself futile. However, I think this is not quite correct. The more I revisit this film, the more I’m able to see a clearer picture, and while much of it remains evasively cryptic, pieces of it become satisfyingly discernible.
The first image we see and the last sound we hear is the sea. It surrounds the film, envelops it.
The sea is almost miraculously potent in its ability to conjure feeling. For Jung, the sea was a symbol of unconscious memory, which binds humanity together; for the poets (and all men), the sea hides mysteries that seem tethered to our very souls. No more powerful image of longing and unfulfilled emptiness exists. It makes perfect sense, then, that Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a sailor. No one is more acquainted than he with the longings and desires of the human heart; he is lonely and has no friends, drifting to and fro in a meaningless voyage directed only by his carnal urges, none of which fulfill him. And so he makes his drink stronger and searches for another woman, hoping only that she might be real and not made of sand.
It is in a drunken stupor that Freddie finds Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), or that Dodd finds Freddie. It doesn’t seem out of the question that the two are somehow drawn together, each serving an exact purpose for the other. For Freddie, Dodd is his savior (it’s not insignificant that he climbs aboard Dodd’s boat, escaping the sea, as it were). For Dodd, Freddie is a protege, a recruit for his growing kingdom; but more than that, he is a project, someone to fix. He is a Jungian shadow to be drawn into the light.
Dodd is the leader of a new organization known as The Cause. Both Dodd and The Cause are ostensibly based on L. Ron Hubbard’s founding of the Church of Scientology in the 1950’s, but while definite tracings of Scientologist teachings are discernable in The Master, Anderson is less interested in mere biography than in extrapolating ideas for his own use. The film’s most fascinating throughline (and the one which, for me, opens up the entire film) is its treatment of Platonic philosophy, which, although vaguely tangential to Scientologist ideas, proves a much richer backdrop against which to contextualize the film.
In the Phædo dialogue, Plato introduces the idea which more or less defines his philosophy: that all things comprising the material world are merely shadows derived from their true Forms in the real world. According to Plato, these two worlds are experienced through our senses (the material) and through reason (the real). The material world is an imperfect copy of the real world, which anchors man’s impressions of reality and acts as an objective blueprint for it, and all objects, ideas, and virtues in the material world point to their true Form in the real world. This means that, as all trees are derived from the perfect Form of the perfect tree and all bravery is derived from the perfect Form of bravery, so too is goodness derived from the perfect Form of goodness. For Plato, the closer a thing in the material world approaches its Form, the more real it becomes, and the better it becomes at being whatever it is. A thing is good insofar as it is real.
Within the context of this philosophy, the famous “processing” scene reveals great insight into Freddie’s character. Dodd sits across from him and asks a series of questions in rapid succession:D: Do your past failures bother you? F: No. D: Is your life a struggle? F: No. D: Do you like to be told what to do? F: No. D: Is your behavior erratic? F: No. D: Do you find it easy to be fair? F: Yes. D: Are you often consumed by envy? F: No, about what? D: Are you scientific in your thought? F: Yes. D: Are you concerned with the impression you make? F: Uh… I don’t understand. D: Yes you do.
What isn’t conveyed in the dialogue’s transcript are Freddie’s minute pauses, scowls, aberrations. When Dodd asks if his behavior is erratic, he nods up and down before seeming to tear himself out of the motion and answering No. When Dodd asks if he finds it easy to be fair or whether he is scientific in his thought, Freddie answers in a lilting affirmative that sounds as if he’s persuading himself more so than Dodd. With the possible exception of “Do you like being told what to do?” Freddie answers each question with obvious untruthfulness (although, in keeping with the film’s title, perhaps even that too is a lie). The significance of this is that Freddie knows what a good man looks like enough to pretend to be one — he understands the Form of virtue, of goodness, and he understands that he utterly fails to meet it. Later in the scene Dodd asks whether he is unpredictable, and Freddie loudly farts and dissolves into laughter. “It’s good to laugh,” Dodd says. “Sometimes we forget. Even if it is the sound of an animal.”
This is the reason Dodd is drawn to him. Freddie is the ultimate challenge, the perfect subject. It is Dodd’s belief that “Man is not an animal… we sit far above that crowd, perched as spirits, not beasts… It is easily achievable to bring man back to his inherent state of perfect.” Of course, his methods are predicated on the assumption that man’s inherent state is perfect — that his animalistic qualities are merely superficial, and can be peeled away to reveal the true essence within. “Man is asleep; the process awakes him from his slumber,” Dodd explains, in an image not unlike Plato’s allegory of the cave. But the prisoners in Plato’s cave were born in the darkness and only know shadows; their inherent state is less than, and they desire nothing more. Plato wrote how difficult it is to free man from his cave, and Freddie is such an example. He is an animal chained in the cave; his master can break the chain, but he cannot make him a man. Therein lies the tragedy of Freddie Quell. He shuffles in a lopsided walk, hunched like an ape. His name reveals his childlike nature, but he has none of a child’s innocence, only a stunted immaturity. And if he is little more than an animal, he’s not sunk far enough to forget that he is a man. He doesn’t know what he is looking for, only that he has never found it. In the fashion of Augustine, his heart is restless; when asked to “recall a word… any word,” he whispers “Away…”. There is no cure for his wandering.
In many ways, The Master is a tragedy about the failure to properly reconcile the flesh and the spirit. Both Freddie and Dodd emphasize one to an extreme, neglecting a proper balance with the other. Both are looking for the same thing — understanding, answers, transcendence. In Dodd’s own words, he is “a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you,” who claims to have “unlocked and discovered a secret to living in these bodies that we hold,” and yet the deeply sad final dialogue between the two men reveals the deep discontent held by both. In the end, all the pseudo-religion and psychology and processing is chiseled away to reveal two very lonely souls adrift at sea. One of them sings the other a love song, because regardless of whether romantic desire lies at the heart of it, that kind of longing is the only kind which puts their feeling into words.
Midway through the film, Freddie is instructed to pace back and forth from the wall to the window, touching both until they melt away and he can see beyond to what they truly are. The film’s defining image lies here: Freddie, pressed against the pane of glass, whispering to himself, “I can touch the stars… I can touch anything I want.” It’s an attempt to convince himself and at best only temporarily successful, for when he is drawn back out of hypnosis he will still be Freddie Quell, a creature somewhere between man and beast, yearning for transcendence but trapped in himself. The last shot of the film returns him safe and content to the arms of a woman, but it is a cheap imitation, a shadow of the real form; because he is not a good man in the Platonic, teleological sense, he is by extension not a real man, and so his lover is made of sand. As the sound of the tide returns, we are meant to believe that Freddie will sail the seas forever.