The Master: meditation on a lost soul

One of America's most pomising directors, Paul Thomas Anderson, turns his attention to the quest for salvation through a modern, Scientology-like religion.
Raffaele Chiarulli | 15 January 2013
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United States, 1950. The veteran Freddie Quell -- his body wounded and his mind and soul haunted by the horrors of the war (as well as by an unhappy childhood) -- runs into Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic leader of an organisation that promotes a therapeutic pseudoscientific method to control the mind and feelings. Freddie is fascinated by Lancaster and sees the group (which is rapidly becoming more and more similar to a pseudo-religious sect) as his only opportunity of redemption and as a chance to re-integrate back into society. Lancaster, in turn, views Freddie as the type of person particularly suitable for the healing methods he proposes as well as for testing that will benefit the human kind.

The Master does not disappoint those who have come to know Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the most original and inspired American directors. Perhaps, in the future we’ll talk of him not just as a new Robert Altman (as Anderson was called in the beginning of his career due to his skill of directing many great actors in complex choral movies), but rather as a second Stanley Kubrick, for his unique style, strength and the precision of his vision through which he communicates meaning and subtle tensions.

Another characteristic of Anderson’s cinema is the feeling of detachment within his films that can appear as indifference towards stories and characters. Indeed, Anderson has the analytic look of a scientist: he looks more like an explorer of that which stirs the human soul rather than a storyteller. The Master is a movie about the fallacy of the man who relies only on himself and on his own strength while believing he has the ability to tame something untamable: the mystery of life. This movie recalls There Will Be Blood (a previous work of Anderson), a movie about America addressed to Americans, focused on the contradictions of a country continually in precarious balance between the greatness of its ideals and the way it tries to realise them.

The Master is also a movie about addiction and loneliness. Freddie, the veteran, is an alcoholic and suffers terrible sexual obsessions (one scene, while unpleasant is very effective in its brutality as we see through his eyes an overcrowded room where all the women -- not just the young and beautiful -- are nude). Lancaster is more and more addicted to his own charisma, the influence he has over others and the power that he can exercise upon the creature he has created ("The Cause").

Their encounter generates a symbiotic relationship between the two: Freddie needs to be loved, accepted and to belong to someone and something; Lancaster needs to control and to be obeyed. Due to these needs a bond is formed -- both a father/son and owner/slave relationship. Freddie subjects himself to all experiments, often humiliating and stressful, even while not understanding their purpose. This portrayal occupies a majority of the movie, showing how both of them, the "father" and the "son", must above all believe that this absurd method works (a mix of psychoanalysis, hypnosis, theories on reincarnation and New Age philosophy). For each, this method offers the opportunity to find dignity and meaning within their lives.

In the final credits, we read that any resemblance to fact and/or people is purely coincidental. Obviously, this is not so. The Master seems to openly refer to the birth of Scientology and to the experience of its founder Ron Hubbard. However, those who feared or hoped for an open critique of the association may be disappointed. The movie is above all an exploration of the inner conflicts and fragility of two men looking to give sense to their own existence, but also an analysis of America and her utopias. If There Will be Blood acts to debunk Puritanism and capitalism, The Master acts to debunk the exclusive reliance on science and reason.

While Anderson places his characters into the solitude of a world where sense is unobtainable, he is not seeking to tell the redemption of two lives that appear doomed. In the end, he shows that neither financial success, nor public consensus, is sufficient to give happiness to man (Lancaster, while idolised by many, is left alone because he is unable to fulfill his role as the "father" to "the prodigal son"). The movie also shows that insistently trying to heal a wounded man with the wrong approach can generate other monsters: Freddie becomes violent against any one who criticises his "master" and once left alone will continue believing in The Cause, even while he lacks the know-how and method to follow it. Anderson stops here, at the pars destruens: he doesn’t suggest what Freddie truly needs in order to be redeemed, but admits the lack of something essential for his real salvation. The truest part of his wounded soul is homesickness for something unobtainable: his need to be loved and the world’s inability to fulfill it.

The film contains nudity, sex scenes and bad language.

This article is published by Raffaele Chiarulli and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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