In Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) re-enters America after having served in World War II and now suffering from post-traumatic stress. Like Vietnam War veteran Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) trying to make sense of America in the late 1970s in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) Freddie is similarly childlike, emerging into a world that is recognisable to him, but doesn’t fully make sense. Conformity, capitalism and consumerism are some of the characteristics of an era of both extraordinary economic growth, but also paranoia where the threat of communist infiltration created a markedly conservative political and social climate. Trying to find a place in an era of pronounced social cohesion, Freddie requires a master. That master is the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a quasi-religious philosophical movement known as The Cause.
Like the nervous and volatile Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) in Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love 2002, Freddie is a lost soul who desires to be part of something bigger than just himself. Constantly talking out of the side of his mouth, hunched over and never quite managing to dress in clothes that properly fit him, Freddie is never comfortable in the world he occupies. At the other extreme is Lancaster the father-figure who, similar to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), is a larger-than-life entrepreneur who captures the American spirit in all its grandiosity, boldness and insanity. If The Master doesn’t have the same immediate emotional effect as Anderson’s previous work it is because it is dealing with far more subdued and interior subject matter than romantic love or building an oil empire.
While Scientology is the inspiration for The Cause and L Ron Hubbard the inspiration for Lancaster, The Master is more interested in systems of control in general and the psychological desire to obey. Following Lancaster’s teaching is something Freddie very quickly and willingly succumbs to, aggressively defending Lancaster even when arguments questioning The Cause are presented reasonably and rationally. Freddie’s faith in Lancaster is so strong that he believes him to even be above the law and any evidence contrary to this does shake the foundations of his belief, but not for long. The Master never presents any definitive explanation for why Freddie would be drawn to The Cause. Lancaster certainly never convincingly presents his belief system; an early scene where he discusses his philosophy on life is almost gibberish, he gets extremely defensive when challenged and even his own son claims he is making everything up on the spot. Nevertheless, Freddie watches dutifully, grinning in delight whenever Lancaster speaks.
Freddie begins the film as not only childlike, but almost primal. He is driven by instinct. He likes to drink so creates terrifying homebrew from anything he can find, including a variety of industrial liquids and chemicals. He is constantly horny, masturbating a few metres away from his fellow soldiers after fondling a sand sculpture of a naked woman. In a much later scene he imagines all the women in the room naked, although it is difficult to tell if he is more entranced by them or Lancaster. When Freddie is with a woman sexually he playfully pokes her breasts and giggles. The next day Freddie is confused and angry by his inability to have a sexual relationship and takes out his rage on a customer at the mall where he is working. Freddie talks about a young woman he loved named Doris, although his neglectful actions – until it is too late – suggest that he is really in love with the ideal of her.
The sexual imagery Freddie continually returns to is that of the naked woman sand sculpture, shaped to pose like a nude model in a pornographic magazine. Similar to Brandon (Michael Fassbender) in Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame, Freddie is obsessed with the manufactured representation of sex rather than the real thing. Like the strange chemical cocktails he drinks, the sex he craves is synthetic and instead of living his own life he looks for a synthetic version of life, and that’s the belief system and social hierarchy that Lancaster offers.
The Master is therefore a film about obedience and forming an identity through subservience. Freddie begins with sex and alcohol as his master, but Lancaster and The Cause soon takes the place in the way that people recovering from addictions often turn to religion as a new form of obsessive behaviour. The exercises that Lancaster submits Freddie to seem designed to strip away his sense of self rather than provide any enlightenment.
Freddie isn’t the only subservient character in the film as Lancaster is also revealed as a figurehead for The Cause with his wife Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams) as the person who is really in charge. The most overt scene exploring their relationship is when Peggy sternly instructs Lancaster on matters of his fidelity while violently masturbating him. Their relationship is seen to be something highly perverse with Peggy maintaining her power over Lancaster while reducing him to his most basic impulses and desires – taking him down to Freddie’s level.
In the same way that the characters in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011) can be very easily read as representing aspects of the American psyche post-9/11, the characters of The Master similarly represent aspects of the American psyche post-World War II. Social cohesion is desired as the best way for an individual to achieve harmony and any attempt to question that cohesion is met with strong resistance. Sexuality is something to be repressed or at least released in a ‘harmless’ way, resulting in a perverse obsession with the idea of sex rather than sex itself. The Master is in many ways a straightforward story about a man unsure of the new world he is now in, and wants to belong to something so that he too can move beyond childish and primal urges and become civilised. Anderson doesn’t provide any easy answers about whether or not Freddie is successful in his ascent, although the final cryptic scene suggests that while he has moved up by a notch in social status he is still mentally in the same place that he was when the film began.