The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson. A very thorough analysis.
I watched The Master on three different occasions, each time with a different attitude. The first time was roughly a week ago. I was restless during the movie and couldn’t pick up many of its underlying themes. Aware that there’s something large that looms beyond my skin deep comprehension of it, I left the cinema impressed with the movie but disappointed in myself. On second viewing, I made it a point to pay close attention to every word and gesture on screen. And true enough, the allegories of the movie became apparent and there was little left to doubt on the director’s intentions. The third time was two hours ago. As I sat in bed half awake, I trimmed off my remaining reservations and the resulting experience is bliss.
Like all PTA movies, there are many speculations to what the movie is about and they come in all shapes and sizes. Some say it’s a subtle biography of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. And that, quite obviously, isn’t true. The most that can be said about Scientology and The Master is Hoffman’s character is inspired by it. Nothing more. Others say that beyond appreciating the hysterics between Freddie and Dodd and their bizarre relationship, the movie doesn’t mean much and further speculations would just be incoherent. And my favourite group is those who claim that even PTA isn’t sure of what he’s talking about and all lucid interpretations of it is just a reflection of our own vanity.
But no one is nearer to the nail than Kenny Miles from themovieblog. He says, “What it is says about human nature and individualism [is] as man struggles to find connection and meaning between a primitive depraved nature and a civilized enlightened mindset, its not clear which aspect of nature triumphs.”
To put it simply, it’s a sardonic exploration of what human nature is.
I think the best way to analyze the movie is by going through it from head to toe. I know it’s tedious, but I can’t think of a better way to. I will be pinning out its important scenes and as well locate the few watersheds of the movie. Most importantly, explain the psychology and motives of the characters at every juncture. Which there are, only three: Peggy, Freddie and Lancaster.
The first 20 minutes of the movie is devoted in showcasing Freddie as a worthless drunk that the vicissitudes of war has left aberrant. The story progresses only after he boards the ship of Lancaster. In striking red pajamas, Lancaster introduces himself as a writer, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. He bounces off the screen as a strong character with control with his life. At the same time, by signing himself off as a helplessly inquisitive man above all else, he’s gives off an extra vibe of rationality and modesty.
Freddie, intoxicated, slouches on the other side of the room. He wants work but doesn’t know how to carry himself in front of Lancaster who’s overflowing with charisma. The scene ends with Lancaster praising Freddie for his potion and inviting him to his daughter’s wedding. While Freddie refreshes his breath by drinking a bottle of mouthwash, he discovers a book by the basin authored by Lancaster titled “The Cause”. He picks it up and puts in down the next moment. Neither reading a page nor the blurb. We learn that Freddie isn’t the helplessly inquisitive man that Lancaster, just moments ago, accused him to be.
As the wedding takes place, Lancaster further establishes himself as a man of great presence. At the end of it, he gives a speech about marriage. After cracking a few jokes about the topic, he looks to his bottom right in deep thought before narrating a story about the slaying of a dragon. This story is no ordinary story but a parable of Lancaster’s deepest thoughts on marriage and the slate of human nature. Animals, as we know, are generally polygamous as they act on their sexual desires at every chance without having to struggle with their conscience. Humans, on the other hand, with marriage discovered and institutionalized, does the opposite. The dragon in the story represents our feral side; our ferocious sexual desires. And the man that wields the lasso represents our will to fight it. At the end of the story, the mighty dragon is tamed with a mere lasso and man has won. Lancaster tells this story with pride and gusto at this point in the movie to project his confidence that with civilization, man had long ditched their identity as mere animals. But on the flip side, it also reveals Lancaster uncertainty on our exclusive sapiency as we are not naturally the way we are but we have to wrestle, wrestle and wrestle our way out of our animalistic tendencies.
The scene jumps to a buffet party. Peggy approaches Freddie and tells him about the great influence he has been on Lancaster’s writing. Freddie appears indifferent to it.
Later, a group of students practices hypnotization/processing on a girl. Through the conversation between Peggy and Freddie we learn a little more on what The Cause is about: The search of ourselves through recalling the different “lives” of our spirit. And if that isn’t enough to trigger your skepticism radar, on the background, a blackboard is scribbled with words like “cellular level”, “pre birth, “sickness” and “coitus”. These are early indicators to show that The Cause is more or less a cult.
“Man is not an animal. We sit far above that crowd”, the radio transmits. This is the first time in the movie that PTA makes clear on what the movie is primarily about to the attentive audiences. Like the dragon story, but much less subtly, the recorded voice of Lancaster pontificates us as unique and spiritual beings. The scene ends in a comedic relief with Freddie proposing sex to one of Lancaster’s student via a hand written note. But this scene is not included so the entire cinema can burst into laughter, but to highlight the difference between Freddie and everyone else in the movie and to further reveal the existential thoughts that bugs Lancaster.
Part B begins with Freddie snooping around on the ship to find the ingredients to his secret potion. Among many other inedible juices , thinner is one of them(if you must know, there are articles on the internet devoted to investigating the different chemicals that Freddie pours down his throat throughout the movie and how credible it is as a substitute for alcohol). As ordered, Freddie brings his potion to Lancaster. Apart from bottoms up, this scene also calls for two interpretations. It’s either that 1) Lancaster is genuinely concerned for Freddie and wants to build a better relationship with him before “processing”. Or 2) Lancaster secretly admires the reckless side of Freddie and wants to do one of the wild thing that he does. Either way, it reveals that Lancaster has taken a keen interest in Freddie.
The processing starts and Lancaster harries a string of questions at Freddie such as: Are you thoughtless about your remarks? Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure? Do your past failures bother you? And most notably, are you unpredictable? On the last question, Freddie’s reaction was to, aptly enough, let out a fart. To which, Lancaster shakes his head and remarks “silly animal” condescendingly. Now it’s even more clear that Lancaster doesn’t see Freddie on the same ground as others and has serious issues with the human vs animal distinction.
The processing ends and Freddie is unhappy. He wants more and clearly has more to let loose that just a fart. It shows that Freddie is a lonely person deep down and a clear sign that Freddie has taken an affection in Lancaster and wants to be discovered by him. The questioning resumes but the rules of the game are changed; you can’t blink while answering them.
The second series of questions are more intense and personal. They include: Do you often think of how inconsequential you are? Have you ever had intercourse with someone inside your family? Where is your mother?If you were locked in a room the rest of your life who would be in there with you?
These questions reveal Freddie’s past, which will later be used against him. As tension builds up and emotions overflow, on the last question, Freddie slips into hypnotization, recalling the memories of his pre-war days with his sweetheart, Daisy. Having heard enough, Lancaster brings him back to present day 1950s, checks his sanity and calls it a day. With tears on the rim of his eyes, Freddie hangs his face with a look of satisfaction.
The ship reaches its destination, New York, probably by the way of the kennel. Lancaster and his family enters the house of a wealthy lady that’s virtually eager to be hypnotized. As Lancaster charms his superstitious and unscientific audience, a thorn stands among them and he challenges the claims and methods of Lancaster. Having exhausted his arsenal of rhetorics, Lancaster resorts to swearing. And this marks the second watershed of the movie(the first is very very very subtly the dragon story). Lancaster, the audience may think thus far, is a man of power and reason. And the instance of his vulgar Hail Mary strips him from that image. His aggression as a result from his vulnerability is much like Freddie’s behavior during processing just moments ago; someone pushed the right buttons to his inner most struggle about the legitimacy of The Cause. Deep down, Lancaster knows that The Cause is just a string of semantics plucked from thin air and he retaliates the surfacing of it with anger.
Freddie throws a fruit at the dissenter and Lancaster immediately commands him to stop as though commanding the dragon in his story. Freddie stops but only to assault him at night.
On the same night, we see Peggy Todd furious from the earlier incident and she’s dictating something while her husband punches away on the type writer. It appears that Peggy is more concerned about the image and prospering of The Cause than anyone else. She suggests that the only way to fend off the dissenters of The Cause is to not just defend but attack them back. What does this suggest? Is Peggy Todd the true founder of The Cause while her husband is just the charismatic mouth piece? It’s possible, but we still can’t know for sure right now. But what we do know is that Peggy Todd, polarized from Freddie, represents the ascetic side of Lancaster. Do take careful note that the word is not rational or spiritual but ascetic. As my dictionary would define it, it is the practicing of strict self-denial as a measure of spiritual/religious discipline.
The next morning, by word of mouth, Lancaster learns of the eventful night and reprimands Freddie for it. Once again, he does it like how a father would lecture a child and a man would tame a… dragon. He compares Freddie to an animal and reminds us for the third time(and even possibly fourth) that we are far above from that crowd.
By now, it should be obvious that Lancaster subconsciously sees Freddie in himself, as an animal. In fact, he’s unsure if man is just an animal and not what his book writes. But coming to terms with that would also mean losing everything he thinks he has “discovered” about the universe. He doesn’t want that nor does he want to live in an existential crisis. So meanwhile, he struggles to stay ascetic. The strength we thought we saw in Lancaster at the beginning begins to dwindle exponentially. 1) He may not be the founder of The Cause and 2) He does not whole heartedly believe in The Cause.
Part C begins with Lancaster and his family visiting yet another lady that’s paranoid with her life. The lady owner welcomes the family by giving a speech, that I suspect, may be written by Deepak Chopra and while so, something unexpected happens. As Freddie is listening attentively to the lady owner’s gibberish decorated by an excessive use of ambiguous terms, Elizabeth Todd, the daughter of Lancaster who is newly wed, sits beside Freddie and seduces him by rubbing his inner thigh with her hand. There have been speculations that say, like her father, she’s sexually drawn to Freddie and his feral side. But I don’t think so. It’s just a test, perhaps instigated by Peggy, for Freddie to contain his feral side. And Freddie passes the test well. If you notice, right after she’s rejected, she pinches Freddie on the shoulder as if to signal “Well Done!”.
The scene skips to Lancaster making merry with his students and hosts. Freddie rests in the corner watching the commotion and the camera switches several times between the worn out eyes of Freddie and the dance floor. As the camera zooms closer to Freddie’s eyes, all of a sudden, every lady on the dance floor becomes stark naked. Mind you, this is 1950s where razors are not designed for every part of our body yet and is that a octogenarian that I see?
This scene is designed to fool the audience into thinking that the ladies’ bare bodies is what Freddie sees after being aroused by Elizabeth. That is not false but definitely not all that PTA intends to convey. If you were to watch the scene(and not the ladies hairy bushes) close enough, you would observe that Lancaster is soaked with joy and blushing while dancing and his wife Peggy is not happy about it. PTA could be saying that this is Peggy’s view of what Lancaster is seeing or simply, this is not just Freddie’s view but Lancaster’s as well. Either way, it’s clear that Lancaster has pent up sexual tensions.
What happens during the next scene would confirm my suspicion. Peggy gives Lancaster a hand job while saying, “As long as no one I know knows about it, other than that, stop about this idea. Put it back in it’s pants. Didn’t work for them and it’s not going to work for you. We have enough problems at it is.”
Only after I left the cinema I realized this: The character of Peggy is designed to be prominently pregnant for a reason; to suggest that Lancaster has been celibate for quite sometime. So Peggy, the ascetic side of Lancaster gives Lancaster the “necessary treatment” to relieve him of his sexual tensions while reminding him to stay obedient and that the prospering of The Cause should be above all others. Considering that Lancaster is essentially a pastor and any scandal would destroy the cult they have established thus far, Peggy’s worries are justified. And over here, it should be confirmed, that Lancaster is just the charismatic mouth piece for The Cause while Peggy is the one that’s pulling all the strings. This is the third watershed of the movie.
Following the night, Peggy wakes Freddie up, tells him that he can do anything he wants to which translate to he can leave anytime he wants and if he wants to stay here, he needs to quit boozing, which translates to, “Stop being a bad influence to Lancaster, which is not just my husband, but the best man to spread the word of The Cause.”
The next morning, the cops arrive and charges Lancaster for practicing medicine illegally. Again, Lancaster doesn’t defend himself rationally but by verbally attacking his prosecutors by asking where their honor is. The cops captures Lancaster by force, and to his defense, Freddie tries to use an even greater force to overcome theirs. But Freddie’s fight is futile and both men get thrown into their respective cells.
Just a wall apart, Lancaster looks at the deranged sight of Freddie, tattered and bruise from the fighting, and psycho-analysizes him using methods from The Cause. Something surprising follows, half-way through, Freddie screams at Lancaster saying that he is making all of it up. Freddie knows. But Freddie doesn’t care about metaphysical notions such as meanings and spirituality. What Freddie wants is someone that understands and appreciates him. Like Doris or Lancaster. But the moment Lancaster psycho- analyzes him and effectively calls him a a lunatic that’s at war with himself, Lancaster betrayed this unspoken friendship that Freddie holds dear to and Freddie bites back. More shouting ensues and finally Freddie goes to sleep while Lancaster pees.
Both man are soon released from jail and they hug and re-conciliate.
Part D aka the tedious part
To change for the “better”, Freddie goes through more processing. They range from having to endure listening to a chapter of erotic novel without reacting to walking to and fro along a corridor and touching its walls.
But, I think, the whole point of the processing is to make Freddie feel important as a human being. If you notice, the “walls touching” processing ends when Freddie says he can touch anything he wants. And the “staring” processing ends when he asserts himself to be superior to Clark as he was the one that shipped the winning ammunitions that helped win the war. And if you think about it, their motives makes complete sense. After all, most organized religious that we know aims not just for people to worship their idol but for people to feel important and spiritual about themselves.
After the reformation of Freddie, the Todd family announces that Lancaster’s new book will be soon published. To promote the new book, Freddie becomes a functional man. He does everything in his means to publicize the book, such as attending radio shows, giving flyers on the streets and becoming the personal photographer for Lancaster.
The release date of “The Split Saber” arrives and we see Lancaster sitting alone in a dark room trapped in deep thoughts, as though he’s uncertain of the legitimacy book. He finally steps out of the room to address his faithful audience. Freddie sits among them and looks up at Lancaster at awe. Is he really a Changed man in the capital C sense? We shall see.
At the end of Lancaster’s sermon, Freddie leaves his seat and chance upon the publisher of Lancaster’s latest opus at the back room. The publisher criticizes the book and Freddie asks him to take a step outside before brutally beating him up. This answers our earlier question. The character development that Freddie has undergone is essentially nil. The drunk that first board the ship is the exact same man that’s wearing a suit and tie now. The only thin line drawn between them is that Freddie has now discovered the new Daisy of his life, which is Lancaster.
In the main hall, one of Lancaster’s devotee, the house owner from before, pesters Lancaster with a series of questions. She points out something contradictory between the new book and the previous methods used by Lancaster to induce past memories. Her innocuous observation makes Lancaster raise his voice at her. She sits baffled, and Lancaster rubs his temples perhaps in disappointment of his uncalled for outburst.
This is clear evidence that Lancaster knows The Cause isn’t real and he is just a sophist. His theories are all tangled up and contradictory because like his son previously said, he’s just making up things as he goes along. And again, when his theories are examined by an external party, it pushes the buttons on his deepest doubts about himself and mankind.
At the movie’s fourth watershed, Elizabeth, Clark, Lancaster and Freddie arrives at what looks like an dessert. Over here, they play a game called pick a point. The rules are simple, point to a place somewhere in the boundless horizon and ride there as fast as you. Lancaster spearheads the game and returns shortly after. The next player would be Freddie, he points to a place, mounts on the bike and never returns.
While Freddie is “playing”, Lancaster mumbles to himself, “He’s going very fast, good boy”. And he says it with an imperious tone confident that he’s still in control of Freddie. Only when Freddie visibly rides across the point he pointed to, he shouts FAIL at the camera.
Some say that this scene signifies Freddie’s sudden realization in his need to become independent. That could be true. But I don’t think that’s all PTA is trying to say. Like the hand job scene that followed right after the shaking of firm and saggy tits alike, this scene is directly related to the scene before where Lancaster losses his anger; his feral self. It meant to say that after years of finding and developing his theories on The Cause, of staying ascetic, Lancaster is finally leaning towards the fact that we are not greater than animals. Remember, Freddie is the representation of Lancaster feral self and now Lancaster is no longer in “control” of Freddie.
No longer in navy blues but a grey, solemn coat, Freddie walks up a familiar flight of stairs. It’s where Daisy lives at from Freddie’s memories when Lancaster first processed him. Daisy’s mother comes to answer the door and explains that Daisy no longer lives here and is happily married somewhere else. Freddie isn’t delighted by the news, but at the same time, he doesn’t make a furor out of it either. He simply accepts what he has lost. We could say that Freddie has changed in the sense that he doesn’t need to live for anyone anymore.
Losing Daisy and Lancaster, his past reasons to live, Freddie falls back into his old ways. We see him dozing off in a cinema and a porter brings him a phone. It’s a call from Lancaster explaining that he has spread the word of The Cause over continents and asks him to join him in England. The scene then skips back to when Freddie is sleeping and what we just saw is a dream. Honestly, I don’t know why the telephone scene is intended as a dream. Perhaps it’s PTA way of blurring the lines between if Freddie needs Lancaster more or vice versa. It’s the only scene in the movie where I admit I don’t completely get.
Freddie travels – if not how else do you get somewhere? – to England to look for Lancaster, to tie the remaining loose knots between them. Or rather, for us to understand how will Lancaster tie the final knots to his own struggle.
And here we have, the final duel between Freddie and Peggy, the feral and the ascetic side of Lancaster. This also marks the first direct duel between Freddie and Peggy under the nose of Lancaster. Probably to mean that Lancaster is finally ready and willing to face his deepest doubts about human nature, pitting the polarized notions in his head face to face.
Peggy interrogates Freddie and asks him if he can ever get his life straight and what does he want out of it. Freddie doesn’t know and is unable to give her a satisfactory answer. Peggy concludes that he isn’t interested in getting better and leaves the room.
With Lancaster and Freddie left in the room, Lancaster tells Freddie that free will is no tyranny to him. That he belongs to the sea, paying no rent and he is free to go where he please. Most crucially to the movie’s hidden theme, he says, “If you figure a way to live without serving a master. Any master. Then let the rest of us know will you? For you will be the first person in the history of the world“. Lancaster then tells Freddie he finally figured out why he seemed so familiar when he first met him, that he went back to the past and recalled that they were colleagues in Paris working for the Pigeon Post. He tells Freddie that unless he changes, he doesn’t want to see him ever again. And if they do meet again in their next life, they would be sworn enemies and he would show him no mercy. Then he sings to Freddie, like how Daisy did 7 years ago before leaving him. Freddie is reduced to tears.
Here are the choruses to Daisy’s and Lancaster’s song.
I’m sure of mother, I’m sure of father
And now I wanna be sure,
very very sure of you.
I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China
All by myself, alone
Get you and keep you in my arms evermore
Leave all your lovelies weeping on the far away shore
And here’s the wordy analysis for the entire scene. By saying that free will is no tyranny to Freddie, Lancaster recognizes that Freddie is different, that he doesn’t suffer from the existential crisis that everyone else does. Freddie simply is. And this unique trait about Freddie, metaphorically, makes him free like a sailor unbounded by land. Like what Lancaster says, Freddie doesn’t have a master, or rather, he doesn’t feel the need to have one. And this Master that Lancaster is referring to is somewhat like absurdism: Our fruitless pursuit in seeking a meaning in not just life itself but almost everything. This quirk about Freddie makes Lancaster realize that he may just be superior(for lack of a better word) to everyone else because he accepts himself for who he really is and doesn’t put up a false pretense to be “human”. In a way, Lancaster’s praise for Freddie is also his ultimate compliance with the fact that we are just mere animals.
However, having established The Cause over continents. Lancaster also knows that although we may be slated to be animals, but we cannot be. That because we are capable, we must too strive for a greater purpose. His mentioning of his relationship with Freddie in the past spikes us into thinking he still believes in The Cause, but in actual fact, he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to see Freddie anymore because although he admires Freddie for being real, he also knows that this is not how a “human” should live.
The song that Lancaster sings for Freddie, is similar to Daisy’s. It is his subtle way of pronouncing his admiration for Freddie and his desire to be with him forever. In fact, he wants more than just having Freddie by his side forever but he wants to be like him. Lancaster wants to be able to reconcile with the fact that he’s just an animal, but unfortunately, he can’t.
Freddie engages in intercourse with a lady he just met in a bar. While having sex, he processes her like how Lancaster did to him at the beginning of the movie. On the final frame of the movie, Freddie sleeps beside a pile of sand shaped like the breast of a woman just like how he did during his time in the army. That’s PTA way of telling us that despite the efforts of everyone that tried to change Freddie throughout the movie, he remains the same as before. If there should be a titular character, it’s Freddie and not Lancaster.
Congrats! You just read 4500words! And I am sure it won’t hurt to read a bit more.
Do be mindful that I never once claimed that my interpretation of the movie is the objective one and only. Because like most pieces of good literature, the implications are many and it can be interpreted in many ways. But what you just read is the best way I manage to connect the dots and when it’s done this way, I feel, paints a coherent and beautiful picture for the movie, which makes me love it to bits and pieces. So just for the records…
1st: The Master
2nd: The Purple Rose of Cairo
3rd: A Woman Under the Influence
PS: I don’t expect anyone to read this but I am a very happy man that enjoyed both the process and product it!