Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
At first, I thought The Master was going to be a story about a man returned from war who, drowning in the terror of his own soul, becomes thwarted in his search for solace at the bottom of a bottle. I thought this in spite of an opening aerial shot straight down into glistening blue water, white foam ruffled by a ship’s wake, set to crescendos of stabbing orchestral music. I missed what I should’ve known: director Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention to fling his viewers out upon the sea of life, at least for a few hours.
Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) embodies the wasted life, the one soaked in booze from morning to night. He is budded from an alcoholic father and a psychotic mother whom we never see, walking crooked and thinking even less straight, never finding rest. Freddie crashes from job to job and, hopefully, doesn’t take too many others with him into the depths of despair where he resides. He’s a hare-lip, a marked man who’s an over-sexed illusionist living in a dream world and waiting for the rejection that will prove he’s everyone’s worst nightmare. Freddie’s bungling and treacherous in his search for a place to rest his weary, wretched soul. We will come to know him as a paradox of misery to be neither embraced nor denied.
It is the Master himself (a jovial, virulent Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who literally wrote the book on the fulfilled life — and whose name we will not learn until he’s arrested by the Philadelphia police for fraud — who enters the scene with promises of rejuvenation to those in need such as Freddie. He’s a 1950’s American phenomenon; a healer evangelist who bases his techniques in a science of evolution yet proves their effectiveness by sheer force of personality. As surely as the harelip repulses people, the healer draws them in. People fete him and follow him. He’s a family man with a capital F, a character that alludes to an underbelly of sexualized impulses that go unnamed and unexplained. When Freddie climbs impulsively over the side of a brightly lit yacht on a dark night after escaping from yet another fight, it’s the Master who welcomes him aboard.
What’s the bond between these two men? The spirits Freddie concocts and carries in a flask wherever he goes. The Master and Freddie share a passion for homemade moonshine, the kind that eats the gut and sends the mind into the stratosphere.
As long as a match isn’t lit, the symbiotic pair step-stitch an emblematic, universal balance of good and evil in search of freedom. Their idea of freedom exists in the elusive space of a spiral where up turns down, right slips into wrong and coming reverses into going. The Master insists the past can be revisited and left behind, and Freddie defies him. Freddie’s feet are rooted in the concrete of his heritage and yet never touch the ground he walks on. He’s an absurdity of spirit, living in spite of the toxicity of the drink he consumes but lacking a life worth staying alive for. By contrast, the Master infuses his followers with energy, lives his impulses lavishly and moves forward without doubt.
Even when Master’s fraud and Freddie’s assault on the police land them behind bars, they’re hooked into one another. In jail, side by side in two wire mesh cages, Freddie smashes his bed, his porcelain toilet and himself to smithereens, while the Master speaks words of salvation, a hand on his hip: “I’m the only person who likes you.” Freddie’s failures pump the Master’s bottomless physical energy and stimulate his mind. He languished in boredom before Freddie showed up. Freddie may be a madman, raging against the slightest iota of confinement, but he’s essential to the confabulist healer who does his best work in the realm of extreme make-believe.
It would be possible to speculate on repressed homosexuality as a driving force in The Master, but the sweeping embrace of the question of freedom proves more compelling. The original image of rolling foam patterned in a wake’s surf repeats at critical moments in the film. When the foam breaks and flies away from the crest, the unruliness of freedom in nature is sighted. So Freddie and the Master merge and break, embedded in a magnetic flow, searching for their moment. These two men hug and release until one disappears in the sand of a desert far from the ocean whence he came.
As the film comes to an end, Paul Thomas Anderson’s dream of mankind goes on. Freddie inspires the Master’s second book, where the teachings have been altered from ‘recalling’ to ‘imagining.’ Together, they usher in a new era — the 1970’s — and leave the next century to us.