Please note that the discussion after the jump **contains spoilers** and should be read after you have seen the film. You have been warned! For my initial spoiler-free thoughts on the film, please go here.
“This is something you do for a billion years or not at all”
This is the film, the one film I’ve obsessed over all year, I’ve seen it six times in cinemas (With a seventh and eighth time bound to happen in the very near future). If you read my review from late last month, it’s essentially a gush fest. It was more in the hopes that after reading it that people out of curiosity would venture out to see it (the lack of cinemas and promotion make it all the more difficult). I didn’t want to spoil a thing for those who hadn’t seen a trailer or knew nothing about it. So to those that did, the one question that came up above all is ‘Why? Why this movie?’ Some didn’t get what the point of its existence was or found it merely a boring film. So here’s my attempt to explain why and what I love so much about The Master whilst giving my thoughts and opinions on certain scenes and ideas in the film. If you can bear with me, this just might explain the gush filled obsession I have. Maybe.
Each thought is my own and almost every statement should be read with the notion that it’s in my somewhat humble opinion….
The opening shot of the film which appears three times throughout is that of rippling water. Instead of cleansing which is what a shot of that ilk usually implies, it signifies each journey taken that ultimately changes the life of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) in some way.
The first being when he’s on a boat during his time in the war, resulting in his unwelcome return to the world that’s advanced when he hasn’t. The second time this shot appears is during the processing session when remembering his sweetheart Doris and leaving her for the war – which of course changed his life for the worse. He never saw her again and this prevented him from truly loving again; and what could have been his only chance at fitting in is destroyed by his encounters in the war. The third and final appearance of this shot being when he visits Lancaster in England. Their final encounter truly confirms his loneliness, in a world that may have never wanted him in the first place. It’s here that he is truly liberated, and of all his life changing travels this is the one that solidifies his place as the true Master above every other character seen in the film.
Yes, that’s right, I truly believe it was in fact Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) who was the true Master.
No, not Amy Adams or Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But let me explain.
To be ‘The Master’ would mean to be an independent entity who cannot be tamed by any person, organization or environment. To not fall prey to love or happiness when truly being superior above all existence. Freddie Quell could not be tamed, not by his one true love, Doris or Lancaster Dodd or Lancaster’s master, Peggy, his wife.
“If you figure a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know, for you would be the first in the history of the world” – Lancaster Dodd
The minute Lancaster says this to Freddie, we know their friendship has ended. Lancaster could never master Freddie, that he is beyond control. Doris couldn’t even stop him from going to war, Lancaster couldn’t keep him from running away for so long and Peggy couldn’t stop him from drinking. We know from the scene in the bathroom where Peggy gives Lancaster a handjob that she is his master. He loves her and she loves him, her master is The Cause; she defends it with every breath, even if it means overlooking logic and reason.
The one question beyond who is the true master by the film’s end is if Lancaster and Freddie were lovers. Were they? Well, what in the movie truly suggests this? The real relationship they had was one that mimicked a father and son. Freddie is “a scoundrel”, one without discipline, Lancaster could see this the minute he laid eyes on him and used The Cause to keep him close by. Lancaster thought he could be a true master to Freddie, to be indispensable to someone who he could mold and shape to his liking. He never had that with his son, Val (Jesse Plemons) who could see past his musings “He’s making this up as he goes along” nor his daughter who was untrustworthy and a liar (“I think he wants me” after she hit on Freddie).
Speculation of their possible sexual encounters is ignited through Peggy, especially in the scene where Freddie imagines all the women in the room are naked; when glancing at Peggy, she looks at him then back at Lancaster with great suspicion, the scene that follows is that of the handjob. Her dialogue to him whilst she’s doing what she’s doing more than implies that she believes their relationship to be unhealthy and of the sexual kind. It’s a way of her understanding where their human connection comes from, and of course, her infatuation with wanting to be in control, especially of her husband who can prove unpredictable when with Freddie (their wrestling on the lawn when Freddie arrives to their home from jail). Her frustration with Freddie at the very end truly comes down to her inability to control Freddie and lose her place as the true master.
During the processing session where Freddie reveals his mother to be in a nut house whilst his father had died of alcohol poisoning, Lancaster can see through every answer (especially honest answers when asked again) that Freddie needs a father figure or ANY figure of sorts and Lancaster could be just that, but more so as a leader to Freddie, while Freddie could be the ultimate follower. It’s only later when taking off on the motorbike in the desert that we see it could never be. Freddie is the child that stands by his father yet disobeys him, fights with him (the jail scene) ; and yet he loves him and would defend his honor in any way (the scene involving the police arresting Lancaster and Freddie visiting the man questioning The Cause earlier in the film). But much like a father/son relationship, the son grows apart and moves on from the one who raises him. Whether he was needed or wanted, Freddie is one that can’t be restricted or kept.
The irony of this being his profession after the war as a photographer in a department store. Couples and children getting their photographs taken, putting on a clean and respectable façade, being told to hold still by Freddie who not once during the entire film stays still and respectable, no matter how hard he tries. The photos, and the beautiful people in them are representations of Post war America, clean, refined yet manufactured. It’s an attempt at perfection without the acknowledgement of the horror and tragedy had by the war just passed. It’s not recovery, it’s ignorance, and Freddie with his appearance is a limping, mumbling, booze drinking, fist throwing encapsulation of World War II and the damage done to the world in its aftermath. It’s only so long that Freddie can keep with supporting the fallacy of “everything is fine” and attacks a man wanting to take his photo, by moving the light too close to his face, revealing all the imperfections of a so-called perfect portrait.
‘The Cause’ was Lancaster’s way of feeding his domineering personality, to truly be in control of people who followed his every word, in a vulnerable time such as post-war. Much like Hitler in World War II who was first renowned for his public speaking and charismatic social skills spoke to a humiliated and beaten Germany after World War I and ‘The Treaty of Versailles’, Lancaster speaks with charm and assurance to anyone associated with The Cause – he knows how to talk to people with charm and confidence, especially a large crowd. His gift is knowing personalities and human behavior, basing his “activities” in The Cause on particular facets, such as the ones Freddie participates in towards the end of the film (describing the wall and window on either side of the room).
Lancaster also being a soldier in World War II represents the other end of the spectrum, the false confidence and the weak foundations behind “The American Dream” using faith via confidence to further paint a perfect picture of the world, not so much the human infrastructure, which couldn’t escape Lancaster’s psyche from his experiences in the war as he constantly states “man is asleep” whom he aims to awaken. Even if his son were right in saying “He’s making all this up as he goes along” and Lancaster is at worst just a petty con artist with a knack for public speaking, there’s still the underlying hint that Lancaster really does believe some of the absurdities he preaches. He’s seen the worst in humanity and ‘The Cause’ is his understanding of why and how we’re capable of going to those horrific lengths. “We’re on a journey that risks the dark”.
In going back to Freddie being the ultimate master despite it resulting in loneliness and true sadness, the second last scene has flabbergasted some, when he’s sleeping with that woman and during sex begins asking her questions in the form of “processing” then the scene ends with him saying to her “you’re the bravest girl I’ve ever met” which mirrors what Lancaster said to Freddie during their processing session. This further solidifies the father/son relationship Lancaster and Freddie had, using what his “father” taught him in their time together, in how to master someone or make a connection much like Lancaster did with him.
Freddie and Lancaster’s father/son relationship is one of the greatest relationships I’ve ever seen in any film of all time. Firstly, the details of their interactions and personalities are more intertwined and similar than you’d first recognize. Try and get your head around this (if you haven’t already and I think I’m smarter than what I am) Freddie and Lancaster are of the same ilk, and I’m talking beyond their experiences in the war. Lancaster, being the father figure purely because he more than coexists in society but redefines it for some and knows how to persuade people into believing things, one example being many thinking he’s a “grade A mystique” or to put it simply, a divine and superior exception to the human race (even he believes this on quite a few levels “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man”). In saying that, their similarities which mimic a typical father/son comparison is in their temperament. Both are short, beyond defensive and don’t acknowledge such things as level-headed reasoning. Lancaster’s being verbal and Freddie’s being physical. Their love and respect for women, with Lancaster knowing how to speak to women young and old, yet Freddie’s batting average emphasizes his somewhat inability and lack of restraint (even if at times quite successful but nothing meaningful surfaces).
I could go on, but there’s only so much one is willing to read from an online article regarding The Master and its incredibly layered existence written a “fanboy”. This might be Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece (my favourite is Magnolia, and for better or worse, it might always be), if it isn’t his masterpiece then it’s certainly his most emotional film, and that’s the “cause” of my love and obsession with the film. It’s emotional, good-hearted, complex, rewarding and epic. Movies these days are cold and predictable (not all, but one too many prove this) so it’ll always be welcomed when something so emotional on such a grand scale challenges its audience, yet rewards them tenfold is what we want and need from cinema. And if it’s still not clear why I love this movie so fucking much….
Lancaster, When letting his “son” and protegé Freddie go, as opposed to ignoring him, saying “goodbye” or aggressively abandoning him…he sings. He gently sings to him as Freddie mentions earlier in the film that the one thing he remembers from loving someone (Doris) is them singing to him. As his lips quiver and his eyes fill with tears and regret, Lancaster looks Freddie in the eye and sings to him. No film could ever summarize a love and understanding two humans shared with such emotional complexity and warmth.
Now, if you were crazy enough to read this whole thing, then I believe I can safely say you are the bravest person I know.
By Chris Elena