Gotta Serve Somebody: Finding Purpose in ‘The Master’

Image 1: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

The sky in much of P.T. Anderson’s The Master hovers at a shade of wiped gray-white, the blue appearing in the form of snips of a heaving riptide and dimly lit interior spaces. It relays a confusion as to what is up and what is down, inside and out, truth or fiction, good or bad. That gives us some insight into the relationship between the film’s dictating figure, the Master himself, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps taking a page out of Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane here), and its troubled disciple, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, truly, and frighteningly, brilliant). It also offers a lens into unpacking writer/director Anderson’s complex portrayal of the seductions of blind, misled faith in exchange for devoted companionship.

The Master is a mesmerizing myth, stunningly crafted, of a charismatic cult leader so huffed up on his own genius that he may actually believe himself to be the guide of an earthly quest of cosmic proportions. But that is not the meat of the story, merely the casing. Dodd, the leader of the new movement, is a “curious man” who aims to return humankind to its “inherent state of perfect.” Quell is a physically and psychologically disturbed WWII veteran whose torment is thinly veiled beneath a hyper-sexualized, animalistic, and volatile personality. In flight from past employers, Quell unknowingly stumbles upon a glowing, light-strung ferry that Dodd and his followers are aboard for a wedding, and after offering his services as a seaman (and more importantly, brewer of a truly poisonous but uniquely intoxicating hootch), Quell is invited to stay.

Image 2: Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and The Cause

The relationship that grows between these two men is most peculiar and somewhat aimless as Quell becomes a pet project to Dodd. What is the root of their some-kind-of-odd-love-affair? It is, as it turns out, that Dodd believes they in fact know each other from one of a many past lives, but it is also that perhaps Dodd believes if his teachings can save this troubled man, they can save anyone. In these parts, the line between egotism and altruism is uncertain.

Image 3: Phoenix, Hoffman

It is arguable that the film’s real power is not in its plot—unwound at a stately and measured pace, but suspended and strange mostly throughout—but in the explosive and hushed peculiarities of human emotion at play and gorgeous visual style. It is strangely hypnotic to watch Phoenix’s Freddie pace a room lurchingly, thundering against walls, amusing and intriguing to watch Hoffman’s Dodd spin his tallest of tales and react at crucial turns. Dodd’s wife, Peggy, played by Amy Adams, is a fierce flash of strength and devotion. They are a trinity, but no, this film isn’t really about religion.

An early sequence reveals the rapid escalation and distortion in temperament that’s characteristic to Freddie. Newly released from military service (during which he humped oceanside sand maidens and slurped down pipe fluid) and holding post as a department store portrait photographer, Freddie incites a customer by placing a burning light closer and closer to his moist, round face. From roguish to murderous in seconds, Phoenix skids across the polished, shining floor of the showroom, tossing crystal tableware at his seared assailant. The lighting of the space is glossy, highlighting the crystal shattering onto caramelly floors, the set design of glass cabinetry and fanciful homewares feastfully nostalgic, and the camera movement is paced much like the swishing hem of a skirt. And then there is Freddie himself, slack-jawed and slump-shouldered. He appears utterly at odds with the sheen of his environment. The next image, assumedly of Freddie’s new employment, is of a knife violently freeing heads of cabbage from their leafy bottoms, accompanied by a startling swoosh-thwack of a landing blade. The visual is a disembodied one, shot from above and looking down at sliced cabbage, suggesting a disconnect between mind and body in addition to the potent zeal of this man’s behavior.

Image 4: Phoenix as photographer

In an interview with Time, Phoenix said of himself, “I have this horrible sense of humor where I think discomfort is funny,” and, well, we can see this at work. If Freddie seems entirely, spell-bindingly, chillingly convincing, we may have a small idea as to why. In fact, the deftness with which the character of Freddie is realized is so layered that every tic and affect (that hideously slumped stance, a pained-or-pleasured grimace/smile, his arm reaching out to fondle an old woman’s strand of pearls), feels much like Phoenix’s natural reflex in a concurrent state of un-thought exaction—in other words, less like acting, and more like reacting in real time. Throughout the film, the alternation from close-up to long shot reveals each extraordinarily unusual characteristic of Freddie. His ruin is all-encompassing, not just something you see up close, or conversely, from far away. This is a film, and a man, that urges viewers to lean forward in their seats, eyes screwed up in stewed intrigue and repulsion.

In the closing moments of the first processing session Dodd conducts on Freddie, there was an audible release of breath from the theater crowd. For a protracted-but-transfixing lengthy stretch of minutes, Dodd urges Freddie on, assailing him with personal questions, not letting him blink his eyes or catch a breath. Why, now, does Freddie yield to this man? From earlier scenes, we understand him to have no regard for authority and deep difficulty with respecting it. It seems then that there is an inborn devotion he feels for Dodd (affectionately called “Master” throughout). Why? It might be that past-life connection, or the fact that Dodd, from the beginning, has commended Freddie for one thing or another (his potent brew, mostly). Though the position of viewership during this processing sequence is uncomfortable, exhausting, and frustrating too (enough!), it is commanding. It demands your gaze. It dares you to blink, knowing you, too, will not. We wait rather impatiently for that release of energy. But we do wait.

And try as you might, a climax in strict narrative terms is difficult to pinpoint in the film. A few nebulous options present themselves: a ferocious outburst in a jail cell; Dodd’s interaction with a newly doubtful believer; an almost-film’s-end decision to stay or go. Each is rooted in impassioned eruption or quiet revelation. These moments gesture at a climactic moment, but that moment never really comes. The course of The Master is ambling, but the terrain is certainly all sorts of good and gritty.

Image 5: Phoenix

As the credits roll, you may be left wondering what, indeed, the message is. P.T. Anderson does not shy from the hinted truth that Freddie finds in The Cause something meaningful he was otherwise missing, and that in The Cause one may find family, devotion, and understanding. But with his constant boozing, we understand Freddie’s acceptance of The Cause to be problematic. Anderson dangles an overarching question about mankind—that we all are somebody’s, or something’s, devotee, slave, etc.—whether to an individual leader, a paint-thinner-spiked hootch, or even the thread-spinning Fates. We cannot always know for certain. I would argue that the film is not rooted in discussions of cult, or alcoholism, or even post-war American thought and consciousness, but rather in the loneliness and searching inherent in the human condition.

The end of The Master emphasizes the power of a repeated visual, dependent on its context. At the beginning of the film, Freddie lays his head beside the bust of a woman fashioned from sand. It is a comically pitiful moment. We shake our heads. At the end, Anderson shows us a similar visual (featuring a real woman), the mood this time calm with a touch of longing. Could that even be a twinkle in Freddie’s eye?

The Master is the type of film where you exit from the theater with mumbled words of uncertainty on your lips. But it is also the type of film that renews a film lover’s faith in filmmaking, each detail so stunningly realized. The 70mm film cut, the milky color palette with pitch-perfect period details, the performances of its actors, its editing, cinematography (by Mihai Malaimare Jr. of Youth Without Youth, Tetro, and Twixt), and score (by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, full of epiphatic swells straddling foreboding shivers). Imagine a symphony of film art when seeing this one: prick up your ears to the sounds that accompany images, layered and affecting, alert your eyes to the smallest of details, color and texture, tone and mood beyond dialogue and narrative. This is a film both felt and considered, a combination we do not always have the pleasure of experiencing side by side.

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Author bio:

Dana Covit received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. With a love for descriptive language, she is still honing in on that elusive scholarly tone. Alas. Her research interests include visual language, experimental film, and psychology in film. She collects heaps of visual and aural inspirations at

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