The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. The plot surrounds a Navy veteran named Freddie who, upon returning home as a lost soul, becomes enraptured with a movement called The Cause- especially by its leader, Lancaster Dodd.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD!
Many have speculated that this film is a direct parallel to the movement of Scientology and its leader, L. Ron Hubbard. Although the film’s “Cause” shares some similarities with Scientology, and the director even hinted at using some components of it as a platform for some of the film’s dialogue, I refuse to see this wonderful movie strictly as a mirror to Hubbard’s religion. They’re so many layers of this film to discuss and discover, and thus I recommend multiple viewings.
Let’s first look at the film’s title. Undoubtedly it is Dodd who is referred to as “the master” throughout the film. He is a man of many trades, and one of his associates even refers to him as a mystic. Yet as the movie unravels, it almost appears as if Dodd’s wife, Peggy, is the one working behind the scenes, controlling Dodd. (Such as in scenes where she jerks him off while telling him to stay off Freddie’s hooch, or when she dictates to him as he writes- suggesting perhaps it’s her ideas that most influenced his books). And then there’s Freddie, who throughout the film Lancaster tries to tame with exercises and “processing.” In the end, Freddie walks away from The Cause, proving that perhaps there is a flaw in Dodd’s movement- some people can’t be “cured.” So who is the real master here?
From the film’s cover alone, which resembles a Rorschach test, we see that Freddie is on top alone, while below is Lancaster and Peggy with reflections of each other on each side. By itself, it appears as though Freddie is the real master, as he is the only person not divided in two. Upon closer inspection, however, we see a crease in the film’s cover running down the middle, suggesting perhaps that we should fold the paper in half in our minds. Once this is done, we see the full faces of Lancaster and Peggy, but only half of Freddie’s face- making Freddie the divided one. This may be a long shot, but I couldn’t help but parallel this idea with that of the Holy Trinity. Dodd as the Master could be seen as a God-like figure, while Peggy, always whispering advice into people’s ears, could be seen as the Holy Spirit (While also in the film’s cover, the shape the Rorschach takes by Peggy’s head resembles a bird, or dove). That would make Freddie the Jesus figure, divided as both human and something divine (while in the film it’s clear that Lancaster views Freddie as a son). Freddie’s division can also be viewed from a different perspective.
Throughout the film, Dodd characterizes Freddie’s behavior as that of an animal, and he frequently mentions that humans are above the animal kingdom. At the end of the film, Dodd mentions something to Freddie about going to a “landless latitude,” perhaps symbolizing the ocean water which we see throughout the film. He also tells Freddie to let him know if he finds a place where he has to serve no master. As far as humans know, animals serve no master- they merely attack and defend. The key to Dodd’s second book, dedicated to homo sapiens, is laughter. As far as humans know, animals neither laugh nor cry. This all points to Freddie being the “Split Saber”- a spirit divided by both human and animal qualities. While Dodd emphasizes the idea of reaching a state of perfection as a human, he also mentions that our past lives could be traced back trillions of years ago- this would mean that perhaps in one of Freddie’s past lives he was an animal. The supposed point of Dodd’s processing was to reveal such past lives and to diminish those memory’s power over a person. Although he tried to help Freddie erase some of his “animal” qualities, by the conclusion we see that Dodd has failed- like an animal, Freddie just wants to be free- not tamed by Dodd’s practices. At the film’s conclusion when Dodd says that in another life he’ll show Freddie no mercy, perhaps Dodd was referring to them both being animals in another life- as animals generally show no mercy towards one another. Call me crazy, but images of birds and fish popped into my mind at this moment.
So I’ll ask again, who is the real master here? Should we consider Freddie, Peggy and Lancaster to be part of the same person? Freddie acts on impulse while Lancaster stresses discipline. Are they both divided internally? Was Freddie, as a human, regressing back to his original animal state? Is this why Dodd seems so disappointed at the end? Or do Freddie and Dodd represent the Xenu of the Scientology religion?
Overall, this film provides you with plenty to talk about after it’s over. The acting was superb and hypnotizing, along with the score done by Jonny Greenwood. There’s something about this film that you just can’t put your finger on- a deeper message is hidden somewhere between the lines. I sure would like to read both of Dodd’s books myself.