Pop Culture

The Master Cleanse

Scientology! Auteurs! Handjobs and fingerblasting! A naked sand nymph! We here at Trop can’t think of a recent movie that’s inspired such an even mix of exaltation and exasperation as P.T. Anderson’s The Master. It’s plenty critically acclaimed, sure, but it also has been met with some (occasionally valid) trolling by moviegoers (check out those Metacritic scores!). Either way, no matter how you feel about it, auteurist masterpiece or masturbatory mess, The Master is the kind of movie that lingers in your head, the kind of movie that demands some kind of drawn-out conversation. So, if you haven’t found anyone to have that conversation with, then you’ve come to the right place… because the four of us had that conversation for you.

[Caveat emptor: the following discussion is freckled with spoilers.]

EVAN ALLGOOD: Time to kick off this Master discussion. The opening question, courtesy of one A.C. DeLashmutt, is…

Why are Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) so drawn to each other?

Freddie is an ex-soldier fresh from the staggering violence of World War II, adrift and basically unemployable until, through a series of misadventures, he stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd, the portly and enigmatic leader of the cult-like (i.e., pseudo-Scientology) Cause. (This is pretty much the entire plot of the movie.) Initially, Freddie is drawn to Dodd for practical reasons: Dodd offers him work (and later, a place to stay), and Dodd is surrounded by women, whom Freddie pursues hungrily and without discrimination. But after their first processing session, Freddie feels like this could be more than a job or even a friendship—maybe Dodd and The Cause could actually heal him. Processing is a warped form of therapy, and Freddie has probably needed counseling since he was a kid. Now he has not only a job and a home but a potential cure for his myriad ailments. And as Dodd mentions when they’re cell-by-cell in jail, he’s the only one who likes Freddie. No one likes Freddie Quell, because Freddie Quell isn’t a likable person. He’s a drunken caveman and he knows it, so he clings to the one person who gives a shit about him—Dodd—and is quickly, fiercely, frighteningly loyal to him. Dodd is his only friend, his boss, his doctor, the father he never had.

Dodd’s attraction to Freddie is more complex. In one way, Freddie is a young, undiluted version of Dodd: the same violent streak that causes Dodd to call Freddie an “animal” and a “naughty boy” exists within Dodd, but Dodd tries to control it, stow it away, only to lash out sporadically when people question him (the skeptical man at the party, Laura Dern at the book release). Dodd sees himself in Freddie, views him as the son he wishes he’d had, since his own son (played by Jesse Plemons) is so indifferent he seems more like one of The Cause’s props, a piece of family scenery, and thinks his father is “making it all up as he goes along.”

But, here’s where it gets weird: Dodd is also sexually attracted to Freddie, maybe even in love with him. The “naughty boy” and “potion” lines come off as flirtatious, as do Dodd and Freddie wrestling in the grass and Dodd’s sweet song to Freddie near the end of the film. But the real reveal is the crazy-aggressive handjob Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) gives him in the bathroom after their parlor party, during which she tells Dodd that he’s allowed to sleep around discreetly, but not to do what he’s thinking of doing (pursuing Freddie). The handjob is so rough not only because Peggy is asserting her dominance over Dodd (he is the origin of The Cause, but she is his Master) but because she imagines this is how a handjob from the primitive beast Freddie Quell might feel. It works, of course: Dodd obeys her wishes and comes hard into the sink, in sixty seconds flat.

A.C. DELASHMUTT: Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd are physically shaped like two halves of a whole: the despised Quell is curled like a skeletal question mark, hunched around the emptiness at his center; he has a gargoyle face and an ape-like hang of his shoulders. The florid Dodd is preceded by a fat, prosperous belly, his face bloated with adulation; he is upright, his pants suspenders utterly decorative. You can imagine them fitting together like those salt and pepper shakers that hug. They are each other’s natural complement, Quell the howling black void and Dodd the white-haired creator-fabricator.

Beyond this natural attraction, the mathematics of the plot pretty much add up (if you carry the one and round off some remainders): Quell is preoccupied with dreams of family (during his psychiatric evaluation at the VA, he said he had a dream about himself and his parents, just sitting around the table, laughing) and goes berserk with envy after photographing a series of glowing children and happily married men in the department store. Dodd has a picture-perfect and still growing family, and as a “first-class mystic” he is able to drink Freddie’s poison—both of spirit and of flask—and survive. The trickier question is why Dodd adopts Quell, who can deliver none of the funds or luxury yachts Dodd surely prizes. Of course, any cult leader values his sycophants, and maniacal loyalty is one thing Quell can provide plenty of. But Dodd also gets to be his best self, “the Commander” with Freddie—teacher, father, master—and not merely a charlatan, not an embezzler, not a father whose own son thinks him a phony, not an author who knows his best work is behind him, or a grunting animal, helpless in the hands of his masterful madonna, Peggy. And maybe, just maybe, Freddie is Lancaster Dodd’s shot at a real miracle—the healing of the sick. And thereby, perhaps, their mutual redemption.

Their sea voyage between San Francisco and New York is the best part of their relationship, the coming together, and Dodd sings mournfully of wanting to have Freddie on “a slow boat to China” in the final scene. Homoerotic, paternal, fraternal, naval, pre-natal, postal, “recalled” or “imaginary”—call it what you like. The ferocious performances by Hoffman and Phoenix are endlessly compelling. But ultimately Dodd and Quell’s relationship—for both the film’s other characters and it’s audience—is like the churning blue sea they sail on. Unfathomable.

ALLGOOD: A.C., you referred to Dodd as a “creator-fabricator” and “a charlatan… an embezzler,” and I’m wondering what makes you so sure that he’s intentionally hustling people. Obviously many of The Cause’s rituals and beliefs (cousin if not twin to Scientology’s) seem to be Grade A Baloney, but that doesn’t mean Dodd doesn’t believe in them. One of the things that’s always bothered me about people ripping Scientology (that’s right) is that, as an atheist, their beliefs don’t seem any more ridiculous to me than Christianity’s or most other religions’. (I think what makes Scientology an easier target is that it demands a financial commitment in order to achieve enlightenment. Then again, most churches ask for donations.) I don’t buy into the Bible, but I also don’t believe most pastors and priests are con artists. Dodd appears genuinely upset when people question or refute his beliefs; I suppose you would attribute that to pride and/or a short temper, but I think one could just as easily argue that he gets so mad because he really believes in what he’s selling. (While we’re here: does The Cause make its members pay, or are they just encouraged to buy Dodd’s book?)

As for the unfathomable churning sea, I think P.T. Anderson (how have we not mentioned him yet?!) returned repeatedly to that beautiful blue shot because it represented freedom for Freddie. In my eyes Freddie never appears happier or more at ease than when he is on that beach, with no Master pulling his strings, no need to obey social norms or act like a human.

I think this movie is about Freddie and Dodd and possibly Peggy, not religion. (I’m with Mark Lisanti on this one: “The Master is about Scientology the way There Will Be Blood was about the oil industry or Punch-Drunk Love was about coupon fraud. A Scientology-like religion… is the setting. The backdrop? The context? It’s not about fucking Scientology, that’s what we’re saying.”) It’s more a character study than a commentary on religion, though some of the themes may apply to both people as individuals and people as cults. Which raises the question: What do you guys think this movie is about, ultimately?

ROGER SOLLENBERGER: Quell.

So much of this movie comes down to that imperative. I think you’re right, A.C., in that Freddie and Dodd are complementary opposites; they fit together, both cons—cave and vex. A veritable Odd Couple, those two! One likes to read; the other enjoys fingerblasting. But it seems we’re sort of missing the forest, here, because to me, their attraction to each other isn’t unfathomable. At the risk of being reductive, Lancaster, a cult leader, is pretty clearly a repressed gay narcissist. This repression is the entire cause behind The Cause. The object of Dodd’s desire is Freddie. In Freddie, the uninhibited lustful caveman, Dodd sees the “animal” part of himself that he works so hard to suppress, and so he sees in Freddie also the very kernel of The Cause. Dodd is clearly in love with Freddie; and partly probably because Dodd is in love with himself.

Several times, Dodd and other members of The Cause speak of suppressing the animal within, of transcending the boundaries of our bodies and time, tapping into some spiritual existence, an existence in everyplace and no place, that traces back three trillion years or something. It’s a load of crap, an elaborate lie and a total scam. But to Dodd, and probably to many, many people like him, it’s a lie that they need; Evan, I’m thinking of your Christianity parallel here. The Cause is a scam because Dodd is scamming himself. He’s created an expansive and intricate fantasy, an alternate reality to distract him from himself, an alternate reality that must be big enough and complete enough to overwhelm his ferocious, lusty animal within—hence the hyper-historical trillion-year scope of his philosophy. We are not simply animals, says The Cause, we are above that; we are infinite beings. We aren’t just flesh: flesh is low, base; we are spirit. The movie is Hobbesian in this duality: spirit vs. animal; society vs. our natural state; sex vs. violence. Dodd is corpulent, fleshy, nearly bursting with the pressure of all the desire he suppresses. Freddie is nearly ephemerally hollow, full of booze—full of, as it were, spirit. We see Dodd’s containment rupture a few times, as Evan pointed out, and I’d like to add a third time: I seem to remember that the song he sings to Freddie at the end is at at times quite angry. Dodd’s trying to seduce Freddie, but his face shakes, his voice is insistent.

As evident in the angry singing of that sweet song, Dodd wants at once to indulge in Freddie, but also has the instinct to control and repress him (Freddie being sent from window to wall in that huge house, working himself into a mad state while Dodd dines with his followers on the pleasant deck outside). In Freddie, Dodd sees his own self in its purest, most potent form. In some of their first moments together, Dodd drinks Freddie’s hooch (literally drinking Freddie’s spirits), indulging his desires and linking the two of them. But in Dodd, Freddie sees something else entirely: not romantic love, but hope. Desperate, alienated, angry, sinful Freddie is the perfect candidate for a cult. In the first “processing” therapy session, Dodd breaks Freddie down, and promises Freddie will one day return to his first true love. This is what wins Freddie over, and the promise of reunion—with his Doris, and possibly with society at large (witness all the parties, all the people around him when he’s with The Cause)—pulls Freddie to Dodd. But in the desert, when Freddie finally makes a break for it, he does it on his own volition. Freddie knows Dodd has led him astray. When Freddie attacks a committed Cause member in Phoenix who had called Dodd on his bullshit, he doesn’t go through with the brutality, but sits on a bench after a few seconds, resigned to the fact that Dodd is in fact deluded, and has been deluding Freddie. Right after this, Freddie leaves The Cause. He returns to Dodd only when all other options are exhausted, and he is exhausted himself. Dodd has a pull over Freddie, but it isn’t the delusion of love, and it isn’t the delusion of The Cause—it’s the delusion of hope.

In the end, The Cause is a gift for Freddie. Freddie finally—finally!!!!—gets laid. (He’s sex-obsessed, but we aren’t aware of him having any actual intercourse until the end of the movie.) He uses Dodd’s processing techniques, but unlike Dodd he deploys them tenderly, drawing laughter out of the girl he’s with. Freddie finally connects in this beautiful and touching moment, but we know Freddie, and we know that it’s ephemeral, that ultimately Freddie is utterly human and utterly hopeless; this fleshy woman sleeping with him will disappear just as certainly as the sand woman he’s sleeping with in the final scene.

SAM FREILICH: Despite some strong resistance and hesitation, I couldn’t help responding to this movie interpretively. I think partly it comes from the movie’s (at times, heavy-handed) insistence of its own mastery (pun intended?): every shot of the movie is seemingly intent on reminding you that you’re watching “great” acting and “beautiful” cinematography, and everything feels so meticulous and intentional that it starts to seem obvious that there must be some deeper, complex meaning lurking down there below all the pretty surfaces. The movie feels Important & Big & Meaningful, in capital letters. In a lot of ways, the experience of watching (and thinking and writing about) this movie mirrors the experience of being a follower in The Cause. You walk into the theater expecting some sort of profound explanation of either human psyche—or Scientology or America following WWII or the next Big step in the career of an Important director, et al. And then, inevitably, you’re disappointed. Most people I’ve met who don’t like the movie (which has been about fifty/fifty; The Master, whatever it is, demands an opinion) have complained about its failure to meet those expectations, whether those expectations were for the movie to be about Scientology in the way Boogie Nights was about the porn industry, or to fully reveal and explain its secrets. Those people complain that the movie was only beautiful or just great acting, as if that somehow renders the movie shallow and pretentious, as if those attributes are a bad thing.

Two emails ago, Evan asked, what is The Master about? I found myself asking that question as soon as the movie ended. I overheard others muttering it, too, as we walked out of the theater. The title card unfurled like a sly smile. I remember one old guy repeating the question twice, loudly, like he was asking the whole theater: What was that about? It sounded rhetorical. The way the old man asked the question, it sounded like a joke. It was a question that made me feel like Freddie pacing from window to wall, straining to see something deeper and more meaningful beyond the room’s implacable, obdurate surfaces. And for me at least, trying to decipher the meaning of the movie has been just as torturous and Sisyphean, an exercise in futility. The answer feels constantly just out of reach, like some insolvable riddle. And this thread has only exacerbated that feeling, as I try to get some articulable grip on my confusion. My frustration festered and grew until I’d deluded myself into believing I had an answer to not just my immediate problem of what the movie was about, but everything. I explicated, I extrapolated, I made connections that weren’t even there. I saw a proverbial flower in the proverbial wall and/or window. (Is that even a connection Freddie makes in that scene? I don’t remember.) Freddie ends up finding a plethora of imagery and symbolism in the room’s surfaces, a breakthrough almost sexual in its copiousness, titillation, and satisfaction (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the next scenes is the one where Freddie has his Eyes Wide Shut fantasy about all the naked women flouncing around). A breakthrough that feels not so much meaningful or permanent as like a beautiful and elaborate prank.

Not to say that I think The Master is just a prank. But I do think that it is more concerned with making us laugh than making us undergo the kind of epiphany I was looking for. Hence, all the fart jokes and physical humor. You get the sense that P.T. Anderson, like Lancaster Dodd, has built this fervent following—predicated on a web of symbols and gorgeous imagery, some vague allusions to pretty rudimentary psychology (Jung and Freud deployed less like torpedoes and more like table setting)—but what he’s really interested is the laughter. Which, all things considered, is a pretty nihilistic view of the world, isn’t it? And that doesn’t just disappoint Laura Dern, it disappoints us, too. We go into a dark, cathedral-like theater, reverent and devout, yearning for something appropriately meaningful, something that could contain a meaning that isn’t just profound but also lucid and understandable, and doesn’t just present humanity as some kind of perverse joke. What The Master ends up offering is blatantly bereft of the usual heavy-handed somberness of a movie this quote-unquote Big & Important (and dark). It’s what I think makes the movie great.

DELASHMUTT: I don’t know that this movie is ultimately offering an answer for a specific question, but equivocations are boring, so I’ll go out on a limb. I think The Master is about the need for mastery over one’s self and others, and—more interestingly and specifically—about men’s need for mastery over themselves and others. Evan, you’re right that I see a lot of significance in the contrasting roles of men and women in this movie. It’s one of the dualities that Roger appreciates.

The male characters of The Master spend most of their time either under attack themselves or attacking each other. Most of the men we see are literally soldiers. After the beach, Freddie is unable to communicate with almost any man other than Dodd without resorting to violence: he attacks his customer in the department store; he poisons the farm laborer who looks like his father; he violently invades the home of the New York skeptic and beats him; he roughs up Dodd’s unbelieving son, and so forth. The men in this movie adhere to a military hierarchy—you either command or you obey. You fight, or you run away.

By contrast, the roles the women of the film occupy are diverse and powerful. Peggy Dodd may be both The Cause and the film’s true Master. Dodd’s daughter Elizabeth, sly and manipulative, fondles Freddie practically under her husband’s nose and then claims to her father that Freddie’s attentions make her uncomfortable. Doris, Freddie’s dream girl, is a frighteningly self-possessed sixteen when she first becomes the object of Freddie’s seven-year obsession. The owner of the ship that Lancaster Dodd claims to command is a wealthy New York doyenne who later has him arrested for embezzlement. Laura Dern is also the owner of the house that Dodd holds court in, a kind of high priestess of The Cause, whose true belief and honest questioning of Dodd utterly unman him.

Interestingly, we only see Dodd hypnotizing women. When Dodd hypnotizes a woman in New York into either recalling or imagining her past life, she says, “I think I was a man.” This film is concerned with matters of evolution of spirit, of rebirth: has she evolved into a higher, freer state by achieving womanhood? If so, is the source of Dodd’s power his ability to gain the trust and patronage of these women?

Aside from Freddie’s own obsession with the female body, there is the constant imagery of female nudity and of breasts throughout the movie. There are boobs everywhere, in many critical camera shots. Amy Adams’s significant pregnancy combined with her sexual power and these breasts to me intertwine issues of female sexuality with those of maternity: birth, rebirth, nourishment, growth—these are the powers of women, that religions like The Cause claim to offer. The women in this movie have mastery over themselves, others, the course of events, and life itself. The men are merely searching for the same. Perhaps, as Freddie’s quest suggests, the closest they can come to that is by both mastering and surrendering to a woman. Peace at last.

ALLGOOD: I demand the last word! Not because I’m a repressed narcissist in the mold of Lancaster Dodd, Rog. Just so this thread comes full-circle. (Honest.)

I thought Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview with Paul Thomas Anderson was pretty fascinating, though it was light on “answers.” (The most revealing moment answers-wise was Anderson starting to say, “Yeah, I think—” [that Dodd believes in what he’s selling], before catching himself and saying, “I have a lot of faith in this character.”) One of the things that really struck me was the fact that Anderson’s father had been in the Navy during World War II, used to drink the ethanol from the torpedoes, and once blacked out and woke up on top of the mast in such a way that, had he rolled a couple inches in either direction in his sleep, he would have died. Remind you of anyone? I doubt Freddie Quell is anything like Anderson’s dad, but I do wonder if imbuing Quell with a couple of his father’s more dangerous anecdotes subtly or even subconsciously influenced Anderson to make this sort of a warped father-son story.

Because to me, that’s what The Master is about: Freddie and Dodd and their bizarre dynamic, which contains so many facets, but if you put a gun to my head and made me choose one, I would say incestuous father-son. There Will Be Blood is a brilliant character study, but I’d argue that just below that, it is also a grim father-son story, or a story about what happens when a man remains (corrosively) greedy, angry, and alone his whole life. (Had Plainview been capable of forging a true connection with his son or “brother,” I doubt he would have taken a bowling pin to Eli’s head in the end.) Last night I watched Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight, for the first time, and that, too, feels like a twisted father-son story—Philip Baker Hall practically adopts John C. Reilly. (Sidenote: Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a brief but priceless appearance in the film as Young Craps Player. It’s easy to see why Anderson felt like he had to work with this actor again, and again and again, in a greater capacity.)

Finally, I was wowed by a couple things Sam touched on: Anderson’s sense of humor and attention to detail. After listening to the interview, it’s clear to me that Anderson knows how beautiful and funny The Master is. He shot it on sixty-five-mm film (most films are shot on thirty-five-mm) and wouldn’t let his son have a cameo in the department store photography because his face wasn’t fifties enough. This might sound like bullshit, but I actually noticed that Anderson had cast people with genuine fifties faces in that scene (something I rarely notice or think during Mad Men). I only didn’t say anything, Roger, because it seemed so ridiculous; but, as Anderson says, “They don’t make faces like they used to.” Based solely on the way this film looks and sounds (not to mention There Will Be Blood or the rest of his work), P.T. Anderson’s precision is basically a superpower. If this film is a prank, Sam, I agree: it’s a great one.

Freddie Quell is master of no one, not even himself. Lancaster Dodd is (for a time, anyway) Freddie’s master, among others’. Peggy is clearly Lancaster’s. But, ultimately, when I see or hear the film’s title, all I think is: Paul Thomas Anderson.

Sam Freilich lives in L.A.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.

A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.

Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.