When I finished a first viewing of The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012), I was tempted to write it off as a mixed bag. I half loved it and half felt ambivalent. While consider it well-made and well acted, I also found the movie to be perplexing and difficult, for its method of storytelling is oblique, abstract and seemingly subjective. (Also, judging from many critical responses to The Master, the film is so mysterious that it seems to serve as a blank slate for critics to project their own beliefs, viewpoints, interests and interpretations onto (which, after one reads this post, I could be also accused of.))
Yet, I understood that The Master is a movie that necessitates repeat viewings. Something runs deep beneath its surface, something that Anderson may not even be fully cognizant of. So I went to see it a second time, again in 70mm. The question in the back of my mind going into the second viewing was the same one that I had while going out of my first viewing: why is the story told or formed the way that it is? And does the film offer any clues on how one should watch or perceive it? Does it teach you how to watch itself as you do? Thus, I prompted myself to somehow see the film in a different light. But what happened during my second time around was more dramatic. It was like noticing the negative space in an artwork, or seeing a negative image turn into a positive image.
But to elaborate my interpretation requires an in-depth, fairly spoiler-heavy summarization of the movie, both in a macro and micro sense. So stop reading if you haven’t seen The Master and continue reading if you have.
Right: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Left: Jaoquin Phoenix.
As you may know, The Master is about the life of Freddie Quill (Jaoquin Phoenix)—an “aberrated” World War II veteran with PTSD and deviant tendencies—from 1945 to the early 1950s. During this period, Quill encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a new age spiritual movement called The Cause, and becomes Dodd and The Cause’s odd ally. But due to the influence of Dodd’s fanatic wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and Quill’s immutable personality issues that aren’t fully eradicated by The Cause’s evolving methods (as well as his own spiritual doubts), Quill returns to his olds ways, albeit more aware of what he has lost.
Upon a second viewing, I could better comprehend The Cause’s initial and (possibly) therapeutic processes: one in which individuals re-experience past traumas (which is achieved through personal interviewing sessions known as Processing) and another that seems like hypnosis and involves reliving past, “recorded” lives (which is referred to as Time Hole work by devotees of The Cause.)
“Processing” is portrayed in an apparent manner in The Master in that there is an excellent sequence in which Dodd interviews Freddie. During this part we see “flashbacks” or possibly imagined memories of Freddie’s that reveal his relationship to Doris (Madisen Beaty), a girl that he left behind in Massachusetts when he joined the Navy during WWII.
But the process of Time Hole work isn’t as clearly defined. The viewer sees individuals participate in it, it’s referred to by members of The Cause and a simple yet unexplained diagram on a chalkboard that maps out a Time Hole journey is shown… but not much more.
Nevertheless, largely because it is understood that Dodd as well as Peggy firmly believe in reincarnation or past lives, it becomes one of The Master's main motifs. For instance, Dodd makes two comments that indicate that his relationship with Freddie fees like déjà vu. In the first scene between Freddie and Dodd, Dodd says, “You seem so familiar to me.” Later, he exclaims, “I must figure out where we met!” to Freddie. (Since he does know where they met in this life, he seems to mean that he doesn’t know where they met in a previous life.) And finally, in the climatic scene of the movie, Dodd tells Freddie that he discovered that they met in a past life during the Prussian Siege of Paris in 1870, as compatriots who successfully worked together to distribute messages over the Prussian blockade by means of balloons.
So, if reincarnation or past lives is a theme of The Master, why isn’t there a representation of the Time Hole experience that is as clear as the representation of Processing? Wouldn’t it make sense since Processing is just as important as a practice as Time Hole work? Why such an in/deliberate omission?
Yet, could the entirety of The Master be (seen as) a shrouded depiction of Time Hole work?
To elaborate: it could be that the stylized, impressionistic form of storytelling utilized in The Master is, for the most part, meant to evoke what the followers of The Cause (or anyone?) experience when they are practicing its methods. In other words: when you watch The Master, you are experiencing something that is “akin” to a subjective recall of the past or a past life.
Of course, accepting this reading of the film depends on how mystical your beliefs are. Yet, it’s not far-fetched to think that this might have been Anderson’s formalistic intent. It’s not like he hasn’t made a trippy film before: most of Punch-Drunk Love (2002) is a hallucinogenic connotation of what if feels like to fall into infatuated love.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Also, Anderson seems to believe in and romanticize reincarnation and past lives. From a recent article in The Washington Post on Anderson and The Master:
One aspect of Scientology—as well as The Cause, its fictional analog in The Master—that Anderson was particularly taken with was the idea of past lives and time travel, which he considers a poignant trope for many of the bittersweet impulses that were animating Americans’ inner lives during the post war years.
“Investigating another time when you might have lived is just inherently so hopeful and so optimistic and so sweet to me,” he [Anderson] says. “You see it in all the things coming out of that time, whether it was music and the songs of that period—everything was about ‘seeing you again’ or ‘I’ll find someday…’ You’re talking about finding ways to go back in time and to pick up some lost piece—and that stuff is just food and drink to me.” 
To reiterate some formalistic characteristics of The Master: its filmic style is oblique, abstract and seemingly subjective. Also, the story has ostensible, nearly invisible plot threads and there is a lack of proper or conventional establishment of narrative or historical context. Furthermore, there is a dearth of traditional transitional cues, especially after Freddie encounters Dodd in the story. The story doesn’t progress in a usual way; it skips from scene to scene, time to time, and from setting to setting in a puzzling manner, as one’s memory would. Lastly, the 65mm format that The Master was filmed in gives its cinematography a lurid, unreal quality, even in the film’s many coverage-less close-ups.
The result of all these stylistic choices renders the narrative mode of the film into something that isn’t quite first person or third-person omniscient perspective; it’s something that feels mysteriously inter-subjective. It’s free-floating and made me feel that I was remembering something that I couldn’t quite specify. Also, the lack of context-establishment in the film is indicative of how the subjective mind operates in that it can comprehend reality or a reality with a limited amount of information.
Therefore, the holistic effect of the style of The Master can create a sense of the uncanny, a la’ reliving a past life in subjective manner.
There is also the obvious fact that the film takes place in the past, just like Anderson’s previous film There Will Be Blood (2007). It could be that he has thought about the act of making a film that evokes the past and what that philosophically means. Usually, when anyone sees a Period Film and (ideally) suspends their disbelief in order to experience the film, they are intrinsically buying into a notion that the past is objective and therefore easy to recreate. But maybe with The Master and There Will Be Blood, Anderson has decided to go in an opposite and counter-intuitive direction by making Period Films that portray the past in more subjective and impressionistic manners.
In that case, the unconventional form of There Will Be Blood could be interpreted as an evocation of what it must have felt like for the early oil barons to create an industry and a way of life during a shapeless, morally ungrounded epoch. And with The Master, as previously stated, the intent of its mysterious style could be an attempt to make Freddie Quill’s life feel like a previous reincarnation of our own individual existences. To echo a line from Wim Wender’s 1987 film Wings of Desire, maybe The Master is also a story of a new ancestor.
Speaking of the new, there is a sense of the unfolding future in the second half of The Master.
After Dodd uses Freddie as a test-subject for new, experimental methods—which he seems to do in a last-ditch effort to save Freddie from himself and bolster the efficacy of The Cause’s ways—he publishes a new book called “The Split Saber” and, with Freddie and Peggy, enacts a second phase of The Cause.
It is conveyed that the newer (possibly) therapeutic means of The Cause as described in “The Split Saber” involve imagining or projecting things into the future. And what’s interesting is that as these events happen in the story, ostensibly figurative scenes occur that telegraph subsequent story events.
For instance: Freddie and Dodd go on an expedition to excavate Dodd’s manuscript for “The Split Saber” in some sort of badlands. Yet, Dodd is shown writing his new work throughout the first half of the film in various locations. Is it probable that every time Dodd finished, say, a chapter of his new book, he went out to the middle of nowhere and put it in a chest in the ground? No. This implies that the scene is more imagined or symbolic than real.
Also, there’s an odd scene that happens after Freddie leaves The Cause and goes back to his hometown to find out about what happened to Doris. He’s asleep in a movie-theater during a showing of a cartoon and an usher approaches him and presents a phone. Freddie picks it up and hears and talks to Dodd on the other end of a call. At one point, Freddie asks, “how did you find me?” This is a good question: how did Dodd know that Freddie was in a particular movie theater? And how is there a phone in the 1950s that can be extended from a lobby of a movie palace into the auditorium? Likewise, we learn story information during this scene that turns out to be true (Dodd is now in England where he permanently based The Cause, Dodd wants Freddie to come to the U.K. so that he can try a new method that might cure his assumed insanity.) So, did Freddie get a phone-call from Dodd at another time and just repeat the conversation in a daydream? Or is something more astral going on?
To echo this post’s past self, I believe that these tether-less, preemptive and symbolic moments near the end of The Master could be formalistic attempts to evoke what the followers of The Cause experience when they are practicing its newer, Second Phase methods.
They could also be attempts to evoke a paradoxical quality of time: as moments fleet, the future plays out; time isn’t divisible, but a continuum. Or, as the great last line of The Great Gatsby puts it, “so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (And need I point out that the first, recurrent image in The Master is a vivid close-up of ocean water as it churned by a large ship.)
Overall, this sub-textual and formalistic interpretation of The Master of mine made the film more haunting and positively-upsetting when I got through a second viewing. As evidenced by the length of this post, I keep thinking about and no longer feel ambivalent towards the film.
As a coda, I would to address how some people conclude that Freddie is a damned, unchanged individual at the end of The Master. Yet, I disagree. I think there’s the slightest glimmer of hope for him.
Here’s how: at the beginning of The Master, it’s clear that Freddie is erratically violent and anti-social. But near the end, he appears to be more cordial and able to connect with others. For instance: when Freddie returns to his hometown and speaks to Doris’s mother about her whereabouts, he converses with her through questions and answers, much like how Dodd conversed with him during his Processing sessions.
Moreover, the penultimate scene shows Freddie in bed with a woman that he picks up in a pub in England. During intercourse with her, Freddie begins to converse with her the same way that Dodd conversed with him when he was being Processed.
Could it be that Freddie has been socialized better as a result of The Cause’s methods, despite all of the turmoil that he went through as result of his association with Dodd? And since the second half of The Master seems to be, for lack of a better term, forward-looking, could Freddie have a more promising future?
Maybe. I like to believe that, even if his fate is ambiguous and his soul still contains darkness, he may find a way to moor himself, and possibly in another life.
There are also many references to time-based concepts through-out the movie (i.e. Freddie speaks of nostalgia when being examined by a military psychiatrist at the beginning.) Also, don’t overlook how, due to his animalistic ways, Freddie is signified as a throwback to an earlier, primal type of human.
Hornaday, Ann. “Paul Thomas Anderson on The Master and going big for the wrong reason.” The Washington Post 21 Sept. 2012: online.