Pain, anger, confusion. Drink, sex, sleep.
This is Freddie Quell's world. It is without meaning or direction. He is all Freudian id without ego, all beast without spirit. He is a half-tamed wolf of a man, slumped and loping and always hungry—feeding, biting, whimpering, running.
He had dreams once. Goals. He's a World War II vet, a photographer, a cabbage picker, an amateur alcohol mixologist. Perhaps he even loved once. But his future and past have been devoured by his present. His passions and fears and neuroses master him in every conceivable way. He quite literally fights his way free from one promising career, poisons another. He's forced to flee from both.
It is Freddie's way, to bite and run, bite and run.
And then one night he stows away on a small ship. When he's discovered, he's led, meekly for the moment, to meet Lancaster Dodd, a man they call the Master.
"You've wandered from the proper path, haven't you?" the Master says, not really asking.
The Master talks about dragons—how his own dragon was fearsome and uncontrollable until he learned how to tame the beast—teaching it to sit and stay. Perhaps tomorrow, he says, he'll get it to roll over.
Freddie smiles knowingly. But we in the audience are left to wonder … what is this dragon really? Is it inside Freddie, something the Master can help tame? Or is Freddie himself the dragon, to be domesticated and brought to heel? Or could the real dragon stand before Freddie, smiling, preaching, charming—a cult leader breathing fire as he talks, devouring souls as he teaches?
Because of the themes at play in The Master—most of which take place in the framework of an emerging cult—it's hard to place much of what we see into "normal" categories. For instance, we know that Freddie desperately could use some help. And Lancaster seems to want to help him, even when most of the Master's family would rather he cut ties with the guy. Great, right? Even if Lancaster's methods are madness, we can at least give the guy props for trying.
Except that we can never be sure whether Lancaster believes in his own methods, or whether (as his son insists early on) he's making this stuff up as he goes. We're left to wonder whether Lancaster's more concerned with Freddie's health or his servitude—molding the man into an unquestioning pet to do his bidding.
It's a theme we see again and again. Is Lancaster being kind or manipulative? Is Freddie staying sober, or has he transferred his addictive mania from the bottle to the bamboozeler? When we see flashes of love or concern, are they sincere? Or are they simply manifestations of (or covers for) more craven impulses? Power? Fear? Jealousy?
The fact that The Master forces us to think about such things is perhaps a positive in its own right. This film gives witness to the seductive and coercive power of cult and tells us, quite clearly, to be wary of those who ask for our undivided devotion.
Lancaster is steadily building a religion molded in his own image. He might argue that he's teaching more of a science (though one not recognized by any actual scientists) than religion as he plumbs people's past experiences with something resembling hypnotherapy. But we learn it's not just past experiences Lancaster is tapping into; he's also trying to pin down past lives.
His adherents believe the world is trillions of years old and most of us have occupied countless past bodies on our way to countless future ones. "Our spirits live on in the whole of time," Lancaster says. It's through painful experiences in either this or other lives that cause pain (believers are taught), and the goal appears to be to rid ourselves of the reactive emotions associated with those experiences. The process, Lancaster tells us, can cure a variety of diseases, too—including dementia and some forms of leukemia. It shouldn't surprise anyone, then, that one critic suggests to Lancaster's face that he's creating a cult.
There is no God or even gods in this spiritual concoction. The ultimate deity, we're told, is humanity itself. "The source of all creation, good and evil, the source of all is you," Lancaster claims. His charge? To find our way back to our "inherent state of perfect."
Lancaster's proclamations yield some striking similarities to Scientology—similarities that the film's writer and director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has both admitted and tried to downplay. He's called Scientology a "backdrop," and said he was more interested in exploring how and why movements like that get going than performing an overt takedown on Scientology itself.
But there's no question that Lancaster bears more than a passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology's founder. Indeed, Lancaster's movement (called The Cause) shares Hubbard's belief in past lives and time travel and trillion years of existence. And The Cause's "processing" sessions sound very much like Scientology's "audits." Thus, despite Thomas Anderson's protestations, it seems fair to view The Master as being, at least on some level, a critique of a real-world cult.
During one of those processing sessions, Lancaster asks Freddie if he believes God will save him. Freddie says no. We hear President Franklin Roosevelt offer a prayer on the radio and the Irving Berlin song "Get Thee Behind Me Satan" in a department store.
Freddie is a man of unbridled sexual appetite. Onscreen he begins to undress one woman. (We see her exposed breasts.) And he engages in intercourse with another. (We see both of them naked, she straddling him on a bed, her breasts and most of her body fully exposed as they make explicit sexual movements and sounds. He gives her graphic verbal instructions at one point.) Elsewhere, a woman brings a man to climax using her hand. (We see their faces and upper bodies.)
During the war, some of Freddie's shipmates create a sand sculpture of a naked woman (including nipples and a suggestive hollow between the spread legs). Freddie mounts the form, pretending to have sex with it. He then jumps up to masturbate into the ocean. (We see the entire act from behind, as part of Freddie's rear shows above his pants.)
Freddie hallucinates that all the women in a roomful of The Cause adherents are naked. The camera observes what he "sees," revealing (at some length) the full-frontal nudity of multiple women.
During a lecture, Lancaster's married daughter, Val, reaches over and kneads the inside of Freddie's thigh, while her husband sits just a small distance away. (As the camera moves away, it's clear that something more is going on beyond its view.) Years older than his 16-year-old sweetheart, Freddie tears through her bedroom screen to passionately kiss her.
Peggy seems to give Lancaster permission to cheat. Freddie admits to having sex with his aunt (three times). "I was drunk and she looked good," he says. He writes an obscene proposition on a bit of paper. And when he undergoes a military psychiatrist's Rorschach test, he responds to each image with graphic descriptions of how the picture looks like sexual body parts, sometimes engaged in intercourse. And it's hardly the only frank sexual dialogue that comes up. In one scene, Peggy reads part of a pornographic story to Freddie. We see words like "coitus" and "douche" written on a blackboard.
Lancaster sings "Slow Boat to China" directly to Freddie. The song includes the lines, "To get you and keep you in my arms evermore/Leave all your lovers/Weeping on the faraway shore." In context, it suggests a dark impulse to possess Freddie's very soul, but it also carries with it a note of homosexual attraction.
Freddie gets fired from one job after he chokes a client with the man's own tie. That client and he squabble in the department store, pushing and slapping before Freddie throws a glass bottle and stalks out.
There's some evidence that Freddie either carelessly or possibly intentionally poisons a man with one of his homemade alcoholic concoctions.
To "defend" Lancaster's honor, he grabs a man by the neck and drags him to the ground, seemingly unsure of whether to strangle him or bash his face into the sidewalk. Similar motivations prompt him to fight with several police officers. Once they subdue him and throw him in a cell, he breaks his toilet, tears into his mattress with his teeth, and forcibly thwacks his head into a wall and the underside of a bunk bed. We hear him severely beating another man who criticizes Lancaster.
Crude or Profane Language
One c-word. About 40 f-words, a couple of them linked to God's name. And three or four s-words. We hear multiple exclamations of "c‑‑k" and "p‑‑‑y." Milder words include "a‑‑" and "d‑‑n." Additionally, God's name is misused four or five times; Jesus' name is abused once. Freddie assigns a racial epithet to the Japanese.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Freddie spends most of the movie drunk, much to the consternation of his friends in The Cause. Lancaster tells him that it's the source of his aggression. Peggy tells him that unless he stops drinking he'll have to leave. "You can't take this life straight, can you?" she says.
As noted, Freddie makes his own alcohol blends, apparently adding to them such things as gasoline, paint thinner and rubbing alcohol. And despite his stated distaste for Freddie's drunkenness, Lancaster takes a liking to these mangled mixtures, drinking them with Freddie and several times requesting that he make more.
We also see people drink wine and champagne. Freddie and others smoke cigarettes incessantly, and Freddie brings Lancaster several packs of his favorite cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Freddie passes gas during one processing session and threatens to "fart" in someone's face during another. It all stresses to Lancaster what a "silly animal" Freddie can be, and he tells him at one juncture that he's like a beast that eats its own feces. Freddie gives graphic instructions on how a man can get rid of a case of crabs. (It involves shaving a testicle and then using an ice pick.) He pilfers stuff from someone's house. He steals a motorcycle.
As part of his therapy routine, Lancaster forces Freddie to walk back and forth across a room, touching a wall on one side, then a window on the other side. For hours, perhaps days, Freddie paces that room like a wolf in a cage—full of anger and confusion and a desperate need to please.
The Master feels a little like that.
Its overall execution is a great achievement, artistically, but perhaps desperately so. It pushes all the critic-friendly buttons while losing any connection it might've had with a paying audience. There is no resolution here. The characters neither change for the better or worse. The Master curries favor with its breathtaking performances (mumble, mumble, Oscar, mumble), then bashes you on the head with its disturbing and grotesque vision. It's both confusing and confused, feeling positively unhinged at times.
Freddie paces between two imperfect paths. One, laid out by the Master, offers a semblance of hope and self-improvement. But it's a false hope, based on a ludicrous pseudo-science and a horribly flawed man. The other is to go back to the life he knew before Lancaster—one filled with sex and drink and violence. The life of a wild animal. One is a wall impossible to breach. The other is a closed window … the promise of freedom of sorts beyond, but filled with broken glass and blood.
Christians know there's a third way: Instead of pounding our faces against a wall or crashing through a window, we can walk through a door of faith in Christ. A door that opens to a life full of comfort and light, of meaning and eternal hope.
But Freddie is given no such choice. All he has is the wall and the window, a cult's claustrophobia and the world's wild futility.