I have heard several different evaluations from my peers of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent film, The Master; from staunch support to outright dismissal, opinions certainly seem divided. But as someone who was not anticipating The Master with any great excitement, I came away pleasantly surprised. Because of this, I feel that I should illustrate why the film deserves a second look. Specifically, I believe understanding what the title “The Master” means within the greater context of its narrative can help give the film meaning for those who might not have gotten as much out of it the first time around.
Please note that as this piece will discuss the meaning behind The Master, spoilers abound. If you have not yet seen the film, I suggest that you do so before reading on.
In my review, I mentioned that despite the framework of a very straight-laced dramatic tale, Anderson manages to inject an almost surprising amount of humor into the story. Normally, laughs don’t account for much other the film’s tone; and indeed, The Master benefits from a consistently buoyant voice for most of its runtime. However, Anderson’s usage of humor belies an almost sinister ulterior motive. By causing us to laugh, he is connecting the audience to the film in a way that directly parallels how The Master connects to his followers.
Humor is, in fact, a theme touted by The Master as a core tenet of his cult-like ideology, which he calls “The Cause.” But by inspiring the audience to laugh, I wonder if The Master is controlling us, as well. By eliciting this particular emotion from the audience, is the character himself not exercising his dominion over the viewer?
He may well be, as the audience is repeatedly tricked by The Master into believing various false truths throughout the movie. For example, we are quickly duped into accepting that the rhetoric of The Cause may have some merit, and never occasion to question what The Master himself is saying. We fall for his jovial enthusiasm and bombastic storytelling just as his supporters do, smiling happily and laughing at his witticisms – at least until other more skeptical characters recognize his pseudo-intellectual nonsense for what it is.
In that light, Joaquin Phoenix’s strangely enigmatic, freewheeling character Freddie serves a dual purpose: he is of course the subservient foil to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s domineering The Master, but he can also be seen as a physical representation of us, the viewers. We are therefore guided by Freddie’s actions, and as his opinion of The Master changes, so does our own – from his initial infatuation for a man who accepts him for who he is, to his breakdown in jail, and finally to ultimate disillusionment with The Cause.
I had the fortune of seeing this film with one of our guest contributors, Mike C, who is a big Paul Thomas Anderson fan. I remember that just after the movie ended, Mike’s biggest questions pertained to what was what was going on inside Freddie’s mind. In answer, I would suggest that because Freddie is actually an embodiment of the audience, we can turn only to ourselves and our own thoughts to understand who exactly Freddie is and what he is thinking. Anderson is taking the usual draw of a protagonist to the next level, giving the character minimal background and sparse internal dialogue so that we can more project our own emotions and reasoning onto him.
So the audience, like Freddie, also spends time in servitude to the character of The Master. In an early speech given by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, he likens wrangling people to corralling an unruly dragon. Perhaps coming into the movie with many different opinions, backgrounds, and outlooks on life, we are the very “dragon” he is referring to: we are the beast that he has to tame.
If Freddie is the audience, then who is The Master? Who does he represent? Who is, in a larger sense, controlling us? I would posit that the culprit is not the fictional character of The Master, but the man behind him: Paul Thomas Anderson himself. We are subject to accepting Paul Thomas Anderson’s vision – in fact any director’s vision – when sit down to watch a film. Moviegoers submit themselves to being the director’s plaything for the movie’s duration and therefore, the man or woman behind the camera becomes our “master” for the time we are in the theater. They impose their ideas on us, and we must watch and listen.
This analysis speaks to the core struggle of The Master. Human beings have been in constant contest for freedom; we have fought countless wars and started as many revolutions to that effect. At the same time, we as a species have a connate desire to follow and serve something greater than us – a leader, a ruler, a mentor. These two aspects of the human condition represent a fundamental duality which every person on the planet has had to deal with. How can we truly be free as long as we insist on living in servitude?
This conflict is given visual support throughout the film, as well. Freddie begins the movie as a soldier who, despite joining hierarchical organization like the military, is clearly interested in doing his own thing – regardless of what his fellow seamen think of him. Shortly thereafter, he finds a job as a photographer. In this sequence, we actually see him behind a camera: mirroring Paul Thomas Anderson’s role as the filmmaker, we can glean that he is, at this point, in control of his life. The next time Freddie is behind a camera isn’t until The Master asks him to help with publicity photos.
Toward the end of the film, Freddie finds a brochure at The Master’s new home in England. As he sees the featured photo, he says, “I took that picture.” With this, Freddie is reminded that he was in control for at least some amount of time while under the influence of The Master. He also comes to understand that he has aided and abetted this man’s dominance over other members of The Cause. Knowing that he had the power to take the photos was one of the key factors leading to his disillusionment; with that revelation, Freddie found confirmation that The Cause was a detriment to his growth as a human being and an impediment to his endless pursuit of freedom.
An old colleague of mine referred to The Master as “a ridiculous and pointless movie that goes nowhere.” Given the the message that I got from the narrative, I have to strongly disagree with this sentiment. Anderson’s strong conveyance of powerful themes makes The Master a compelling commentary on human nature. The film doesn’t offer many answers, but it makes such astute and thought-provoking observations that it is hard not to get wrapped up in its earnest passion.
“A ridiculous and pointless movie that goes nowhere.” I don’t know, perhaps he was thinking of Magnolia?