Lancaster Dodd: I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.
While Paul Thomas Anderson’s film catalogue may not be expansive his movies certainly are. He hit fame and encountered some notoriety with his highly original and flamboyant expose of the pornographic industry in Boogie Nights. Since then he has continued to go on to make some of the most challenging and innovative cinema. The Master in particular seems to bottle what is so alluring about how Paul Thomas Anderson makes movies.
IMDB Storyline of The Master: Returning from Navy service in World War II, Freddie Quell drifts through a series of breakdowns. Finally he stumbles upon a cult which engages in exercises to clear emotions and he becomes deeply involved with them.
For the regular cinemagoer The Master might seem like a hard nut to crack. You’ll find no redemption or atonement for wrong doings, nor even a typical narrative structure in this movie. We don’t follow a path well worn by any other movies, none which I can recall anyway. The Master leaves us to pick up the pieces and assess what it means to us. *You will find what it means to me in the last paragraph of this article. The Master on the surface is a story about an intense and complicated friendship (some say love story) between two men with alter egos who despite their obvious inadequacies and at times repulsive behaviour find some extraordinary kinship in trusting and believing in one another.
Here in lies the tragedy – the summation of such a profound friendship does not equate to much by the end. This is where many viewers might find the movie unclear and elusive or simply off putting. We don’t arrive at the end and say, ‘Oh Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix’s character) is a better person for thinking this or behaving like that’. That despite such a profound kinship between the two egomaniacs, the movie and the characters essentially ends where it begun. They seem to be souls touched but as easily untouched by each other and those around them. To me the Joaquin Phoenix character is the alter ego of Hoffman’s Cult Leader character which is alluded to in the last scene between them. ‘If you leave me now, in the next life you will be my sworn enemy‘.
It dawned upon me in a later viewing of the movie when Freddy Quell is watching a movie in a cinema and Lancaster Dodd happens to call him out of the blue, that Paul Thomas Anderson like Dodd is having his way with us. Anderson in his director’s hat and The Master (The Lancaster Dodd character) are one of the same puppeteer. Dodd is pulling Freddy’s strings and we the audience like Freddy are going wherever he motions us. The irony is like the charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd in the movie, Anderson is seemingly making this up as he goes along. But he is The Master and we (the audience) are his loyal followers. Even if he sends Freddy from wooden paneled wall to window and back over and over again we like Freddy go along too despite how futile or meaningless the exercise may appear. He is the Master after all.