The Master – 2012 – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a tale about masters and pets, leaders and followers, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Dodd, the brilliant but short-tempered founder and prophet of The Cause, takes Freddie on as his template, his patient zero. As Freddie hungers for sex, food, and survival, Dodd meticulously draws inspiration from Freddie, himself. His own religion changes shape, the more time he spends with this sex-crazed, alcoholic lunatic. Freddie learns from Dodd, Dodd learns from Freddie. Dodd leads with his directives, and Freddie follows. Freddie follows with his whims, and Dodd changes things to suit Freddie’s desires… but to a point. There is still very much a master at work.
Dodd tells Freddie, “If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world.” The very theme of the film, this is a statement for Freddie as well as for the rest of us. A paradox of human nature, exhaustively investigated in the film, is subservience versus independence. As humans, we desire both, but on our own terms. Where there is no master, we create one, by belief in a deity or electing one into power. We want to serve and be served. Why else would middle management exist? We want responsibility, but we also want someone to blame, be they above us or below. True independence, The Master teaches us, is knowing that the buck must only ever stop with yourself.
Dodd and Freddie have a father/son quality that’s impossible to ignore. One of them purports to seek truth (indeed, the yacht’s name is Alethia) while the other lives out the truth of what it means to be a human. Peggy Dodd (a powerful Amy Adams) chastises Freddie, “This is something you do for a billion years or not at all. This isn’t fashion.”
But isn’t it? Anderson borrows a bit from Kubrick’s message: you can “civilize” yourself and dress yourself up and perfume yourself as much as you want, but at the end of the day, you and me and everyone you know is hungry: for sex, food, territory, money, you name it. You can take the beast out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the beast.
This is quite likely the strongest role of Phoenix’s career, and Hoffman, predictably, turns in a rock solid performance. Favorite scenes included the playful tussle on the lawn and the vitriolic scream-fest in jail. To paraphrase from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, we hate and love our masters just as we hate and love ourselves.
Jonny Greenwood’s haunting, staccato score is at once clinical and yet motivational enough to inspire you to start a religion of your own, or at the very least listen to it on your way in to work. It’s synth with a cool retro sound, and will be a distinctive, oddly addicting addition to your soundtrack collection.
There’s been considerable discussion regarding the film’s ending. Does Freddie change? Does he learn to live without a master? Does Dodd? Does anyone?
Perhaps it’s not about learning to live without a master: maybe it’s about learning to live as if you don’t have a master. In the film’s beginning, Freddie makes love to a woman of sand. In the end, he makes love to a woman of flesh-and-blood. Has he changed? Well, he’s taken his first steps, and it’s a start.
Is he still an animal? Well, aren’t we all?