For a Billion Years or Not at All: Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master
Paul Thomas Anderson opens his sixth feature film with a long overhead shot of the ocean, churning and bubbling away behind the aft end of a military ship. It’s a poetic image, crafted to represent the spirit of the man this ship transports: Freddie Quell. Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a raging storm, a raw force of nature, wrapped in the trappings of a man. We first meet him as a Navy soldier in the Pacific at the very end of World War II. He seems to barely qualify as a man. He’s the typical idea of a foul-mouthed, rough-around-the-edges sailor. Freddie mixes highly alcoholic (or otherwise encumbering) drinks for himself and his fellow men. He depends on these drinks’ numbing effects to get through everyday life. And on top of all that, he’s fixated on sex, almost to an animalistic level. After only joking around with a woman made of sand, the very next shot is him, alone on a beach, relieving the arousal the act has caused.
This behavior doesn’t end as he returns home. As Freddie bounces between jobs, he continues to create dangerous drinks (which only fosters his precarious drinking problem, which teeters on the edge of deadly addiction), chase women, and leave huge amounts of damage to lives in his wake. Freddie is a man of pure instinct, never slowing down for a single moment to look backwards and take accountability for his actions.
Things begin to change for Freddie when he wakes up one morning on a yacht he wandered onto in the middle of a drunken night. On this ship, he finds himself in the middle of a cultish group of people following Scientolog—oh, I’m sorry, must’ve mistyped there—the Cause. Part of their not-so-clearly-defined beliefs include focusing on looking into the past, both into their current lives and previous ones, to find sources of trauma through intensive question-asking called ‘processing’. Their beliefs are as opposite of Quell as possible, and yet, Freddie finds himself slipping into this belief system. Granted, that mostly happens because of the gravitational pull of their leader, Lancaster Dodd.
Lancaster Dodd, in another incredible performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, appears to be a master of all trades. He is, in his own words, “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher”. In reality, he’s almost none of these. He’s a writer, a hypnotist, a pseudoscientist, and a faux intellectual. But he’s a phenomenal actor and con artist, who can play these roles to a T. And he’s nothing if not a leader. Each word he speaks carries a weight of intelligence and commands attention from every ear in the room. Future and pasts are his focuses, never the present. While the audience knows it’s all nonsense, it’s hard not to fall into the Master’s spell.
As Freddie grows closer to Dodd and to the faith he’s purporting, it becomes more and more apparent that Freddie is not meant to be a follower of the Cause. For a ‘religion’ that claims to be a solution for everyone on the planet, it couldn’t be further from Freddie’s needs. As he listens to Dodd lecture on the fact that man is not an animal and must not succumb to baser instincts, he passes women notes, beggin them for sex. When more challenging Cause processes are used on him, he practically falls apart at the seams. As Dodd sings a little sea shanty at a high-class Cause event, Quell imagines every woman in the room naked.
There’s no cerebral level to Freddie Quell. However, he is a natural follower who’s highly susceptible to suggestion, so Dodd takes him under his wing willingly. There’s also something of Quell in Dodd, because we see moments of that same baseness in the Master himself. He’s just as prone to fly off the handle at provocation from non-Cause people, though he uses his words to attack, rather than Quell’s fondness for physical fights. His wife scolds him for infidelity as she gives him the same stimulation we saw from Freddie on the beach at the film’s start. At his core, Lancaster Dodd is the same animalistic man, but he’s learned how to disguise himself as something greater, something nearly other-worldly. But he’s still pulled towards the man he knows he truly is in secret.
Thanks to this dynamic, The Master becomes something of a love story by the end. A tale of body and mind coming together and realizing that one cannot live without the other. Dodd and Quell are star-crossed lovers from opposite ends of a spectrum; they’re the kind of people that are too different to stay together but too similar to permanently disconnect from each other. If Dodd’s theories have any merit to them, then in this life and in the next, these men will collide and crash into each other over and over, as friends, as enemies, and even as lovers.