HPaul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is one of his underrated movies, which is completely unjustified. It is the best performance of Joaquin Phoenix’s career; his portrayal of an aggressive, erratic yet extremely complex character will leave an indellible mark in the history of film. The Master is a heaven for psychoanalysts, if there are any of them left (e.g. Slavoj Žižek). It follows a war veteran with mental issues, Freddie Quell, who succumbs to the will of a charismatic and narcissistic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd. We can tell that he is a narcissist not only by observing his erratic, but controlled behaviour. The subtitle of his second book, as it is shown in one frame, is “As a gift to homo sapiens”. This may inspire one to recall, (or imagine to be more correct) Friedrich Nietzsche’s stance about his own importance to the mankind; when was half-mad toward the end of his sane life he signed himself as “Christ” and “Dyonisus”. The film obviously explores the emergence of cults and their attraction to men who lack direction and purpose in life. A famous Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen writes to his friend in his beautiful song Famous Blue Raincoat:
Did you ever go clear?
“Going clear” is a direct reference to the practices of scientology, meaning that one should be free from past traumas and uncontrolled desires. Lancaster Dodd is an amateur psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing hypnosis and the so-called processing. The rituals that Lancaster imposes on his followers have a double nature: they are both an initation into the cult and the means of controlling the followers. By the promise of eliminating instincts, aggressive impulses and traumas he offers salvation, but that very “salvation” results in slavery. His methods have a counter-effect, thy produce a being that is more irrational and obsessed with power than before.
Later in the film, he tries to help Freddie by controlling his anger and agressiveness, but we can see that he did not (completely) succeed. What’s more interesting than the above mentioned notions, along with the exploration of the psychological state of war veterans in the post WW2 environment, is the father-son relationship between Lancaster and Freddie. This seems to be an important theme for Anderson, since it is explored in There Will Be Blood, as well. There Will Be Blood and The Master seem to form a strange diptych; Daniel Planview is reincarnated in both Freddie and Lancaster with overtones of ravaging pleonaxic desires and Lancaster reincarnates Eli, a charismatic priest with a similar lust for power.
Although they are often in a conflict, Freddie and Lancaster seem to be stuck in an unusual relationship, that of a mentor and a follower, but also a very intimate one. The father-son relationship as presented in the film is a constant battleground of testostorones and urges in which the dominated strives for domination. It is not a relationship based on mutual trust and respect but a power relation in which there an be no winner, but in death. P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights was deeply influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas; The Master seems to be as well. The life of a group which has family structure seems to be Anderson’s constant preoccupation.
Free winds and no tyranny for you, Freddie, sailor of the seas… If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first in the history of the world.
It is interesting that Dodd mentions the term “master” since he is one throghout the movie. This line can be interpreted in terms of the famous Hegelian master-slave dialectic. According to the professor Eric Steinhart the Hegelian master-slave dialectic occurs when two self-consciousnesses confront each other. It is doubtful if we can call Freddie “self-conciouss” at all, at least during the first half of the film. He is already a slave, to his desires and to Lancaster Dodd. Later, he gains self-consciousness and the battle may begin.
They decide not to fight, although they do fight earlier in the film and Lancaster implies that they will be mortal enemies in their next lives. For Hegel, this would be barbaric, the two sides need to learn how to cooperate, not to fight an endless struggle into eternity (logically). Lancaster “lets” Freddie live his own life as he pleases, he is “off the hook”; it is an open ending. Freddie decides to live as a free man, but, does he serve any master? Or the master should be himself, exercising power over himself. This may be the message of The Master, one should learn to control oneself, by oneself – alone.