The Cause of Love and War in The Master

A man adrift.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an infinitely sad tale of doomed love and repeated miseries.

(READ CAREFULLY – SPOILERS AHEAD)

Poor Freddie Quell (a resurrected from the ashes Joaquin Phoenix) – the guy was doomed from the start.  From infancy, the people he loved the most were destined to ruin him – his father a drunk and his mother insane.  Adrift at sea in war-time, a lovely girl named Doris (Madisen Beaty) starts writing him letters.  When he returns home to court her, he realizes she is too young, only sixteen, and uncomfortably dedicated to the idea of their love.  Freddie has no choice but to go away.

Years pass and his troubles brew, soothed only by his homebrewed hooch and pleasures of the flesh.  Finally, he stumbles drunk onto a party boat lit up like a Christmas tree, afloat on a San Franciscan dock and temporarily home to The Cause.  There love finds him again, in the form of a charismatic cult leader named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman – exceeding even his own increasingly high standards of acting) who introduces himself to a nervous Freddie as “just a man.”  But their love, too, is doomed.

Of course none of this is presented so cleanly.  The calculated precision of Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, clean lines of Mihai Malaimare Jr’s photography, and the impeccable production design of Jack Fisk create a strange dichotomy to the chaos living within the characters being studied.  The first twenty minutes of the film are in jarring discord and amplified by Jonny Greenwood’s unnerving score.  We get glimpses of Freddie Quell’s early days ripped from the horrors of WWII and plopped into a peace-time he can’t comprehend leading to increased anti-social behavior, a juvenile obsession with sex and inability to stay in one place for too long.  His personal history is revealed through flashbacks during “processing” sessions with Lancaster Dodd – the first of which is an absolute master class in acting, writing, directing and revealing character motive.  Moments of presumed peace or revelation are marked by exceedingly pleasing period-era big-band jazz and old standards, but often these moments are mere illusions or veils to cover the madness simmering beneath (witness Freddie’s warped and sex-obsessed point-of-view when Lancaster sings a happy old tune with his adoring ladies).

Two men at war.

Both men are evading something – Freddie running away from the love he feels for others that always brings him pain while Lancaster is often evading his critics and the law while trying to enlighten his disciples.  With him are his devoted daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), doubting son Val (Jesse Plemmons) and doting wife Peggy (Amy Adams – displaying a perfect exterior of lovely maidenliness hiding a steely and often ugly will to hold on to her place).  In Freddie, Lancaster sees the perfect project – a man his wife fears is insane – whom he sees as a golden opportunity to prove the validity of The Cause and its methods.  But he also sees a son to love, and in Lancaster, Freddie sees a father he never had.  Dodd proclaims his “processing” methods and ability to delve into authentic experiences from past lives (stretching back trillions, yes, trillions of years) can alleviate a person’s current ills and psychological hang-ups.  He even claims if followed correctly, The Cause Way could cure diseases and bring about world peace.  But it is in Freddie where he has staked his most difficult claim.

The most telling piece of “processing” is the processor’s insistence that the one being processed repeats over and over the same answer.  In the repetition, Lancaster believes, the answer (or the root cause of the problem) loses its power.  Anderson’s symbolism, too, repeats over and over throughout the film – the churning waves of the ocean trailing behind a ship, Freddie’s nervous laughter and stooped shoulders, men literally adrift at sea, sand castles shaped like a woman’s body, shadows and light, potions and elixirs (in the form of alcohol or a philosophy), Lancaster’s calm juxtaposed with Freddie’s restlessness.  The characters, too, repeat the same dramas.

A woman asserting her place in The Cause.

Near the middle of the film, Peggy gently accosts a drunken Freddie in the wee hours of the morning in Philadelphia and tells him to imagine something, anything in the future, and then to wake-up and walk towards it.  In the latter third of the film, out in the deserts of the South West, Lancaster challenges Freddie to race on a motorbike to a point on the horizon as fast as he can.  The point being that you can never reach that point.  Freddie, of course, doesn’t care and goes too far while never reaching that secret something, that destination – that elusive future, that purity of love.  As The Cause grows, the followers eagerly expect a grand revelation – an all-encompassing answer to life’s mysteries – but just when you think he’s about to get serious, Lancaster defuses the moment with a bit of levity, saying something innocuously self-help-ish like “The secret to life is laughter.”

But there is no laughter in his heart or Freddie’s.

The viewer, too, imagines a point on the film’s horizon – a thunderously definitive There Will Be Blood-style “I’m finished!” moment that will reveal Anderson’s purpose.  Alas, it never comes.  Through Freddie, we are invited by Lancaster to stay – even after threatening Freddie, “If you leave, I never want to see you again.”

But poor Freddie, he can’t help himself, he can’t come to terms with the love he feels and he knows it will always be damaged and distorted.

Freddie has to go away…again.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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Related Spin:

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Across the Blogosphere – Keeping Track of the all the Great Chatter:

  • Samuel Wilson offers up his thoughtful take at Mondo 70.
  • Andrew Wyatt echoes similar thoughts and conclusions as my own over at stlmag.com.
  • Carson Lund expertly deconstructs the amazing performances over at Are The Hills Going to March Off?
  • Kevin Olson went through numerous drafts before concluding the film still frustrated him.
  • You know I had to include this one from Gary Thompson at Philly.com because he makes reference to Graham Greene!
  • Roger Ebert offers up a mixed review, often desiring to have learned more about The Cause.
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4 comments on “The Cause of Love and War in The Master

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    Sounds like you have mixed feelings on this film David. If so I can certainly sympathize, as I feel I must see it for a second time this week after the film seemed to alternate from brilliance to boredom. I liked Greenwood’s score a lot, and I thought Phoenix was electrifying, but the film is not always focused. Your discussion here is fascinating David.

    • Sam – if by “mixed feelings” you mean that I found it monumentally depressing but still a fascinating work of art – then yes, I did. It was certainly an odd experience and warrants multiple viewings to mull over. It left me feeling like a Bergman film, while it was filmed like a Kubrick film, yet the story was borderline Herzog. The “chatter” around the film has been almost as interesting as the film itself.

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