The Prophetic American Tragedy of The Master

Movies Features Paul Thomas Anderson
The Prophetic American Tragedy of The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson is not often in the business of explaining his films, at least not from the perspective that they’re out to impart some kind of message to an audience. Anderson’s best films, after all, are the ones about searchers and drifters, people floating in an often strange world in search of truth or fulfillment or even just a warm body with whom they can share a bed. So when it comes to his ultimate tale of a drifter searching for meaning, The Master, it’s no wonder that Anderson steered clear of easy explanations for the film in interviews.

Here’s how the filmmaker explained his approach to the film’s subject matter a decade ago, during a press conference for The Master’s Toronto International Film Festival premiere:

I don’t consider that we’re dealing with a cult. The area of the story after [World War II] is like food and drink to me in terms of an opportunity for a lot of good stuff to tell a story. We talked before about how there is a tremendous mix of optimism but an incredibly large body count behind you and, how can you really feel great about being victorious with so much death around? It kind of gets to a spot where you have to figure out where all of the bodies are going. I guess that kind of creates situations where people want to talk about past lives. They want to talk about what happens after you die. [The] kinds of idea that The Master is putting forward is that time travel is possible. Accessing things that happened to you in other lives is possible. Those are great ideas, I think, and they are hopeful ideas. That was fascinating for me to write the story around.

Ten years later, The Master and its themes—of past lives, confronting death and searching for a belief system in a bankrupt world—are more potent than ever. Initially whispered about in the public consciousness as the filmmaker’s take on Scientology, it has in the years since its release proved far more potent as a prescient, even prophetic, depiction of a haunted American landscape and the souls still trying to find their place in it.

As a vehicle for his exploration of this landscape, Anderson chose Freddie Quell, played with caged animal intensity by Joaquin Phoenix. A former sailor turned department store photographer, Freddie was warned in the wake of WWII that American society at large would not understand what he’d just been through in the Pacific, where he later admits he killed men, and where we see he passed his time by making homemade booze from torpedo ethanol. When the war ends, the home brewing continues and eventually, improbably, leads to a friendship with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in what should have been another Oscar-winning performance).

Anderson sets up the first extremely consequential meeting between these two men as a study in extreme contrast. Dodd, perched in a position of power on a yacht, is eloquent, well-dressed, amused by Freddie’s disheveled demeanor and penchant for making “potions.” Freddie, on the other hand, is confused, hungover and mumbling, unsure if this man is about to kiss him or kill him.

But Freddie is drawn to the man his followers call “Master,” because for all his amusement at Freddie’s style, Dodd is also not inclined towards condescension or disgust at his new friend. His intellectual curiosity with Freddie’s worldview consumes him, just as Freddie’s own curiosity with Dodd’s philosophical system (known as “The Cause”) begins to consume him. Slowly, the two men begin to meld. Anderson shows us Freddie getting better suits of clothes, growing more composed and relaxed, while Dodd gets rougher around the edges, more prone to childishness and carefree exploration, often to the ire of his wife (Amy Adams).

The deeper we get into their lives and their relationship, the easier it is to see why this strange merging of personalities is taking place. The Cause is predicated on the idea that, through enough “processing” and work, a person can return to their past lives and unlock the various negative energies that are holding them back, thus removing them and reaching their full potential as human beings. Freddie, for all his apparent carefree drifting, has a past life of his own to contend with, a life of regrets tied to a former lover he abandoned, a road not taken that he cannot stop revisiting. The idea that Dodd could free him of that burden, thus granting him some sense of total untethered peace, is buried deep inside Freddie, no matter how reluctant he might be to admit that.

Dodd, meanwhile, is trapped in a mechanism of his own making, a cult of personality so intricately woven and deeply embedded that he couldn’t escape it if he tried, in part because he has as many enemies as he does friends. At one point, after releasing the second volume of The Cause’s philosophical system, he snaps “What do you want?” at a loyal follower because she has questions about the intricacies of a process that, according to Dodd’s son (Jesse Plemons), Dodd is secretly “making up as he goes along.” These are, on some level, the hallmarks of a confidence man, but something in Dodd’s inner life suggests that he’s just as desperate for answers as his followers, just as eager for transcendence, even if he might be further away from it than anyone. He’s willing to drink Freddie’s potions, and hear Freddie’s story, because he believes he can help, but also because he believes Freddie might be his only chance at really doing something good—something transformative beyond the bombastic façade of The Cause.

In the end, the two searchers, both lonely and lost in their own ways, part forever, leaving us with our questions of whether one man was closer to enlightenment than the other. It’s a tragic, haunting portrayal of American postwar anxieties and, viewed in that context, it remains a great film. But viewing The Master a decade on from its release, it’s taken on even more meaning.

Like Freddie and Dodd, we are now living in a world with an incredibly large “body count” behind us, thanks to a global pandemic and the ongoing horrors of war, climate disasters and a hundred other cruelties. We walk a haunted landscape laden with the wreckage of the past decade, and with that knowledge in mind it’s easy to wonder why we’ve survived this long, why the world has chosen to preserve us. It’s no wonder, then, that conspiracy theories of shadow governments and weaponized plagues linger in our heads, no wonder that so many would turn so readily to extreme theories of the world’s hidden internal scaffolding. We are in an age of masters, of more masters than any person could ever serve in a given lifetime, and so we’ve all become Freddie, and we’ve all become Dodd, each with our own Cause and our own wanderings. The Master predicted this face of endless post-traumatic searching, whether Anderson meant to or not, making it even more achingly beautiful a full decade after its release.

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

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