Ten years after The Master was released to theaters, it’s fascinating to look back on its initial reception and see how so many critics were obsessed with decoding this movie. Part of this could be due to the run-up to the feature’s release, which featured lots of controversy and discourse over the notion that The Master was going to focus on the earliest days of Scientology. With this hot-button issue potentially on the margins of this motion picture, critics and audiences alike wanted to peel back the layers of The Master. Whether you were reading positive or negative reviews of this Paul Thomas Anderson directorial effort, there was a constant desire to crack what the central theme or underlying intent of The Master was.
When Quell Met Dodd
A decade later, though, it’s more apparent that The Master is so outstanding not despite its often-confounding ambiguity, but because of it. The Master is the story of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who served in the Navy during World War II but is now struggling to find any sort of purpose or consistency in his life now that the war is over. In his time searching for meaning, he stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man leading a religious movement dubbed “The Cause.” Dodd is a man of high esteem while Quell is somebody at the bottom rung of society. Yet the two men are compelled toward each other. Dodd believes he can cure Quell’s mental illness struggles with his religious practice. He just needs time and Quell’s patience.
A Shapeless Plot
The plot of The Master is not one of big events or momentous revelations. It’s a motion picture that’s intentionally often shapeless. This serves as a reflection of Quell’s life after World War II and living with severe mental health issues daily, but also how Dodd, to quote his son, “is making everything up as he goes along.” Though both put on drastically different airs in their public personas, neither Quell nor Dodd have large concrete plans for their future. They’re improvising every step they take, yet always yearning for control over a future they can’t possibly hope to comprehend.
The Master’s intentionally aimless ambiance seems to invite people to either dismiss it as lazily assembled or become obsessed with explaining it as actually more complicated than it seems. Anderson’s genius, though, is in making a movie that’s elegantly simple as an extension of how Quell and Dodd are not as significant as they may seem. Quell is not a revelatory case study that can prove the wonders of The Cause, he’s just another of countless examples of American society chewing up and spitting out people who fight for our country. Dodd, similarly, is not a Messiah figure. He’s a flesh-and-blood human whose often at the mercy of his wife (Amy Adams) as often as he is with the unpredictability of the future, who, by the end, seems to have become trapped by how enormous The Cause has become.
This is not to be reductive towards the finer nuances of The Master, or suggest that Anderson could never have had higher aims for this narrative, or even that people can’t have loftier interpretations for its various subplots. But the initial discourse over The Master having something concrete to say or criticism over it needing to always say something, rather than focusing on individual interpretations, missed the point. The Master’s vagueness can mean anything and everything simultaneously. That’s baked into its DNA, not a defect of lazy screenwriting.
The Characters Are Just As Aimless
Just as Quell can be seen as everything from a murderer to the figure that could help bring validity to The Cause, The Master’s ambiguity allows it to take on so many forms to so many people. The narrative’s nebulous nature being an extension of the characters even extends to how its lack of answers serves as a parallel to Quell and Dodd. Neither of these men has any answers to the questions that torment them so, including how a man can live without a master. Why should the film they inhabit be any different?
As a byproduct of both its intentionally shapeless narrative and its intent on mirroring how its lead characters are so in the dark, The Master keeps its story riddled with ambiguity. Did Freddie mean to poison the man early on in the story who drank his moonshine? Did Dodd call up Freddie in that movie theater? Does The Cause have any validity or is it just superstitious mumbo-jumbo? Trying to pursue concrete answers to these queries is a fool’s errand. The Master is a stirring exercise that invites you to contemplate, not serve you up easily defined answers on a silver platter.
People struggled so hard to nail down what The Master is truly about because it’s a movie about uncertainty. Its commitment to replicating what it’s like to be a human like Quell, who just bobs from one place to the next like a pebble being carried like a stream, makes for an unforgettable and captivating movie, but it doesn’t make for something that offers a concrete stance on, say, Scientology. The Master invites viewers to come bathe in a world of unpredictability and chaos, to walk into the psychology of two men who are aimless in the trajectories of their lives. This makes for an endlessly fascinating cinematic exercise, but not necessarily a great vessel for concrete takeaways that’ll make snappy headlines on websites. That ambiguity divided viewers back in 2012, but over time, it’s a quality that’s helped the movie endure as one of Anderson’s greatest works.
Reflecting Real Life
After all, the last ten years have only reinforced how few concrete answers are lying out there in wait. Not only that, but the rise in prominence of people like Donald Trump or Joe Rogan shows how human beings are always attracted to folks like Lancaster Dodd, blowhards who act like they have all the answers yet have no clue. In steadfastly refusing to provide answers to its unique plot structure or questions, The Master has created a story that’s able to resonate in any era. The nebulous nature has also allowed it to take on fascinating new interpretations as the years go by, including that the film has significant queer undercurrents.
What the next decade of assessments, interpretations, and breakdowns of The Master will bring is excitingly uncertain. What is apparent, though, is that The Master’s commitment to ambiguity, though divisive to some critics in 2012, made it more relevant to its characters and to the world we inhabit. Answers aren’t the point here. The point of The Master is what you bring to the table, not to mention the visuals and atmosphere conjured up by its unique creative aspirations. After all, who needs concrete answers when you’ve got moments as intimate as that rendition of “Slow Boat to China”?