Paul Thomas Anderson, you brilliant illusionist. Since 2012, The Master has fascinated and confused me. On the surface, it seems to examine a World War II veteran’s search for meaning. One could argue that it’s fundamentally about Scientology and post-traumatic stress order, as the director has been on record about the influence of both L. Ron Hubbard and John Huston’s 1946 film Let There Be Light. Strange as The Master may be, the narrative makes sense, for some viewers, with its chronological narrative. But does Anderson’s film have a chronological narrative? I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all. And there’s an important visual clue, front and center, in the second shot; an image that’s crucial to understanding Anderson’s fictional character, Freddie Quell.
The Master begins with rolling waves, followed by a close-up of Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) gazing out at the horizon. The opening wartime sequence presents Freddie as a disturbed social outcast; a man that speaks matter-of-factly and acts inappropriately. The Master doesn’t feature any battle sequences, but it does feature Quell having simulated sex with a sand creation. Anderson seems to shed light on Freddie’s psyche; he’s a strange man, perhaps an alcoholic, but viewers can empathize with his condition. Curiously, in the aforementioned second shot, Quell has a bruise above his right eye.
As the soldier discusses his family and mental state with a superior (a master), Anderson uses a fade transition. Now working as a photographer in America, Freddie literally seeks the right kind of lighting. During a mall shoot with a man that suspiciously looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd aka The Master (whom appears shortly thereafter ), Quell loses focus after hearing a baby’s cry. “Are these for your wife?,” Freddie asks his subject before overwhelming him with light. The two men fight and Quell takes a punch above his right eye. After several viewings, The Master’s first act seems to have a reverse narrative, in my opinion. Quell, traumatized by childhood memories and depressed by his own failures as a man, retreats into an imaginary world and serves a Master Projection. Full of insecurities and envy, Freddie envisions a more grandiose life for himself by manipulating his memories to create fantastical creations. The Master’s dialogue reveals a man coming to grips with his own “inherent need to procreate” and perceived failures. Quell’s projections offer a temporary solution — “an inherent state of perfect” — and he soon finds a home on Dodd’s vessel, the Alethia. In Greek mythology, Aletheia is the Spirit of Truth, and it’s truth that Freddie escapes from in The Master.
During Quell’s first conversation with Dodd, it’s the latter that takes control. The Master — the new Master Projection — sets the narrative, and the submissive stowaway follows along. “I said that?,” Quell says after learning about his drunken antics the previous night. And just like that, Anderson drops the anchor. The Master, or Quell’s imagination, is now in control. In this metaphysical world, Freddie acknowledges his alcoholism but uses addiction to his advantage, as Dodd requests that he stay aboard the Alethia to produce his magic potion. This all takes place after Quell apparently kills a man at a California cabbage farm, not long after stating that a different man (or perhaps the same man) has the same physical features as his father. The character actually seems to be an older version of Rami Malek’s Clark, which means that Freddie quarrels with his own father during later scenes. That makes sense, especially if he’s traumatized by experiences with his mother. In Quell’s subconscious, killing his father makes room for a replacement — a new Master Projection. And shortly before the initial meeting with Dodd, a motherly figure temporarily calms the storm: “You’re safe. You’re at sea.” After inviting Freddie to stay on board the Alethia, The Master declares that his “memories aren’t invited.” In Quell’s subconscious, there’s an ebb and flow of painful memories — currents and crashing waves. From that perspective, the water visuals signify Freddie’s internal drifting, probably due to heavy drinking. He’s lost in his own mind, but his Master Projection, Dodd, offers stability.
Unsurprisingly, The Master’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), looks like an older version of Doris, a young girl that Quell supposedly left for a job in China (it seems more likely that he was rejected by a teenage girl). Freddie later discovers that his object of affection became “Doris Day,” which suggests the character is yet another fantasy, and that Adams’ character is another projection. On board the Alethia, Peggy makes a telling statement about Dodd (Quell) and the accusations against him: “He spends too much time defending himself.” On The Master’s vessel, Quell has purpose and confidence, and Dodd offers an escape from real-world troubles (accusations). The processing conversation is perhaps the most telling sequence of all, as Quell submits to The Master — the Master Projection — and acknowledges his own self-deception.
Many have interpreted the processing sequence as a give-and-take between two well-known method actors in Hoffman and Phoenix. Underneath that performative realism, though, is the key to unlocking The Master’s core mysteries. Quell admits that he’s a liar. He admits that he’s slept with a member of his own family. Dodd hammers away with difficult questions, as Freddie communicates and compromises with his own subconscious. The dialogue addresses his self-deception, sexual inadequacy and fantasies, all of which contribute to his envy and escapism. During the conversation, Quell dreams of Doris and a job in Shanghai; projections that connect with the film’s final act (more on that below). The scene ends with Dodd saying “you’re the bravest boy I’ve ever met,” which is repeated in the film’s last sequence — a love sequence. It’s noteworthy that Quell never actually has traditional sex throughout The Master, but he still projects himself as an overtly-sexualized being (humping a sandwoman, writing a “do you want to fuck” note, etc.). In the final love sequence, Freddie takes a submissive role, and the line “now stick it in, it fell out” raises even more questions.
After the processing session, the jail sequence demonstrates the constant push and pull between Quell and his Master Projection; a visual metaphor for mental instability. Freddie looks inward for an “inherent state of perfect,” and he finds fleeting moments of happiness by figuratively letting the right light in. During the photo session for Dodd’s book, Quell achieves a temporary “state of perfect.” He blocks out a negative memory — the mall breakdown and scuffle with Dodd’s doppleganger — by manipulating the facts to create an alternate sequence of events; a new memory. Quell and Dodd are now one, and the photographer briefly frees himself from past traumas via his Master Projection.
Through physical space in The Master, Anderson explores Quell’s self-image and intimacy issues. In real-life public settings, like a mall, Freddie is awkward and influenced by outside “noise.” On board the metaphysical vessel of truth, the Alethia, Quell finds connections and meaning while reflecting on his own self-doubt. In the beginning, he’s at sea, drifting and alone, imagining a more purposeful life. Anderson doesn’t reveal Freddie’s origin story, nor does he offer specifics about the character’s sexual history, aside from the idea that Quell might’ve slept with his aunt or someone else close to him. (In a deleted scene, Freddie states that his mother hurt him.) But Anderson does suggest that Quell feels trapped. This concept is on full display during one of Dodd’s mental exercises, in which Freddie must find meaning within the four walls of a room. He identifies a window to the outside world. And in that moment, Quell lets the right light in.
So, if The Master’s characters are projections, how does this explain the side conversations that take place throughout? Quell seems to be filling in the gaps. As mentioned, Clark is Freddie’s father, and Clark’s wife/Dodd’s daughter, Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), seems to represent Freddie’s mother. At one point, Elizabeth makes a move on Quell while Helen Sullivan (Laura Dern) speaks about time holes. This scene precedes the “I’ll go no more a-roving with you, fair maid” sequence, in which Quell drifts deeper into his thoughts and imagines a room full of naked women. During the initial wartime sequence, his conversation with a superior mirrors Dodd’s processing session, and Freddie ultimately finds meaning in the latter, thanks to his new Master Projection. During interviews, Anderson has noted that he initially wrote The Master’s beginning, middle and end with a clear focus, but that collaborators helped shaped the story. So, a beach is not just a beach, and a ship is not just a ship. In The Master, physical space reflect’s Quell’s state of mind, and the conversations represent his hopes and fears while battling alcohol addiction. Every so often, Freddie overcomes his anxieties and sees the sunshine. Still, he’s trapped deep within his own mind.
Ultimately, Quell breaks free from The Master’s influence. Despite the new perspective, Freddie needs to travel great lengths to re-connect with Dodd, his former Master Projection. As Casper notes during the cartoon sequence, “the captain never leaves the ship.” The Master will always be in Freddie’s mind, even if he seems a world away. No wonder that Dodd often suggests that he knew Quell in another life; Freddie moves back and forth between Master Projections. Anderson puts a body of water between Quell and Dodd to emphasize the former’s progression, but they’re still on board the vessel of truth. Freddie seems to know that he’ll forever be on a slow boat to China with Dodd, even if he finds alternative solutions from time to time, whether it be alcohol or new Master Projections. When Dodd performs for Quell — a sequence that many have labeled as homoerotic (!) — Quell is actually performing for himself, and The Master soon ends just as it begins, with a troubled man observing the turbulent waters before him, clutching onto concepts and ideals that always seem to be just out of reach. As Dodd relays to his followers, “your imagination allows for a more creative pathway to the mind… this is the vessel you’re living in now.”
Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor. From 2014 to 2017, he wrote over 600 video scripts for WatchMojo, and he’s the author of their first e-book, WatchMojo’s 100 Decade-Defining Movie Moments of the 1990s. From 2006 to 2012, Q.V. lived in Hollywood, California and worked closely with ABC On-Air Promotions as the production manager for LUSSIER. He now resides in sunny Fargo, North Dakota.
Q.V. (Quinn) Hough is Vague Visages’ founding editor.