Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An Analysis of The Master (2012)

The Master poster
[part of a series in which I closely examine and dissect a particular film]

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Genre: Psychological Drama

Please keep in mind that this is an analysis of the film and not a review. I will not be covering things I normally cover in my reviews. It is opinionated and merely my interpretation. It is primarily for those who have already seen the film and does contain major spoilers.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a former member of the U.S. Navy of WWII. He also happens to be a sex crazed alcoholic with more than a few mental issues and is, in all possibility, quite insane. The natural assumption would be that he is shell-shocked and traumatized from the war (he later states that he did in fact kill Japs in the war) and he is having trouble, as many soldiers had, readjusting to society. This, to me, is too simple and typical of an explanation. This film is more than just a character study of a veteran. 

I think Freddie's problems go much deeper than the war. Much earlier. This is evidenced by three things we find out about Freddie that reflect his current behavior: (1) his mother was psychotic and institutionalized, (2) he had incest sex with his aunt numerous times, (3) his father was a drunk and died because of it. Each of these three insights into Freddie's past quite blatantly make-up much of his own character today. I think it is quite easy to assume that Freddie comes from a broken home, a very disjointed family. This leads to my next conclusion: that The Master is about Freddie and his quest for family, stability, belonging, and companionship. In a dream that Freddie recalls he was just sitting with his mother and father at a table and talking, having a good time. This is what Freddie wanted--a happy family--and it's the one thing he had the most trouble finding. 

I suspect that Freddie joined the Navy in hopes of finding a family there. I suspect he failed, or perhaps he did find a family but only temporarily. Or maybe he found a family and companions and a sense of purpose only to have it all taken away whether it be through death, the end of the war, etc. The details don't quite matter. The point is that years after the war ended Freddie was a dissatisfied alcoholic who could still only think about sex and booze. 

Freddie worked as a photographer at a department store for a time. Constantly taking pictures of children and families and husbands and wives led him to finally snap, constantly reminded of what he wants but doesn't have. He is sex crazed because he wants to have someone but sex is the only way he can seem to go about it. He is an alcoholic not because he has a problem with alcohol, rather he is an alcoholic because he has other problems. 

Freddie then, seemingly by complete chance, meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whom not only becomes a father figure to Freddie but also provides Freddie with a group to belong to and a "purpose." The film makes it very clear that Freddie isn't very much interested by "The Cause," he's only interested in having a family to be surrounded by. 

Joaquin Phoenix photographing in the Master

The film reflects and mirrors itself a lot. (Notice how every single poster for the film deals with mirroring in some way? see here, here, here, here, here, and here) Towards the beginning Doris, Freddie's old sweetheart whom he let get away, sings to Freddie. At the end of the film Dodd sings to him in a similar lullaby like way, albeit much more creepy and emotionally. Freddie photographed people for a living in a department store and later on he photographed Dodd. Lancaster Dodd, and to a lesser extent the rest of "The Cause," became his family. He didn't care about the beliefs, indeed he often showed that he thought it was all bullshit. I doubt that Dodd really wanted Freddie to be part of "The Cause." He perhaps was only keen on Freddie to satisfy his own psychological desires. 

The final reflection is one of the very first scenes and the very last one. In the beginning we see Freddie humping and fingering a sand sculpture of a woman. The very last thing we see in the film is Freddie cuddled up with that same sand woman, with a look of bliss on his face. Further evidencing the fact that Freddie isn't necessarily after sex, but rather company. 


Freddie Quell sand woman The Master

What Dodd represents other than a father figure I'm not sure. Perhaps Lancaster Dodd is religion, members of "The Cause" are blind followers, and Freddie is someone who isn't concerned with the truth but instead with his own comfort. Freddie could also represent religious fanaticism, or, better put, religious militarism. Even though Freddie himself is unsure whether he believes in "The Cause" he is still quick to take down any one who opposes it. He throws a tomato at a man and later goes to his home and attacks him just because he spoke out against what Dodd had said. He attacks the policemen who arrest Dodd. He attacks a man who criticized Dodd's book. 

I also cling on to another theory that I've seen thrown around a bit, and is also reflected in many of the posters for the film. That Freddie is one of Dodd's past lives. Whether you want to take that literally or metaphorically is unimportant, but "The Cause" directly deals with past lives and people's past, so there is a connection. This theory is supported by a few points: Dodd feels that he met Freddie before but he can't remember where. Dodd also seems to be the only one that can drink Freddie's potions and survive (whereas earlier in the film a farmer drank it and died; a would-be pretty pointless scene without this theory). It's small connections like that, and also the fact that much of Dodd's life and psych is similar to Freddie's (though they may at first appear opposite). 

If Dodd is the next incarnation of Freddie (or, if that theory is too hard to subscribe to, then perhaps Freddie just reminds Dodd much of himself when he was younger. Either way works.) then we can deduct that Dodd also desired a belonging and a family, which he of course found, or rather created, with "The Cause," which even his own son realizes is nonsense. Is Freddie, then, destined to end up like Dodd? Will Freddie seize the concocting of alcoholic potions and instead take up the concocting of false doctrines? Poisoning people not with liquor but with words? Will he lose his desire for sex and instead develop a desire to be followed, worshiped? Or has Freddie, in meeting Dodd, altered his destiny? I really don't know. 

Freddie Quell in The Master

A final word on the film: one scene I really liked was when Dodd was dancing and suddenly all the women became nude. Common film language would tell us that we were seeing the world from Freddie's sex crazed mind. The camera cuts between the room of nude women and close-ups of Freddie's face. But, upon a second viewing, it is Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) who really steals this scene. She only appears in the background and is only in focus half the time, but the emotion in her face tells us that the scene is just as much about her as it is Freddie. Perhaps Freddie sees all the women in the room naked because he is fantasizing about having sex with them. But Peggy too sees the same thing because she is thinking of all the potential threats to her husband's loyalty. This is supported by the two scenes that preface and follow the naked women scene; the former being Peggy's jealous face as Dodd praises another woman (this scene also includes Dodd's daughter cheating on her husband with Freddie, further pushing the theme of betrayal), and the latter when Peggy gives a vicious handjob to Dodd in the bathroom, domineering him, commanding him, possessing him. Could it be that Dodd is not the Master, but in actuality he is mastered by his wife, just as he desires. Could it be that The Master is not a film about someone who is the master, but a film about men who desire to be mastered?

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