The Master (2012) and the Pursuit of Meaning

Paul Thomas Anderson has said numerous times that The Master is a love story between Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd. In that love story is a strong message about the pursuit of meaning in one’s life. This pursuit, shown primarily through Freddie’s perspective, travels to many fronts. First, Freddie is shown in the military and later it is revealed that he chose the military over staying with Doris, his lost love. Freddie has derived his meaning from this military life. During a processing scene between Freddie and Clark, Freddie is tasked with saying whatever he likes to Clark. He chooses to tell him that he worked on a battleship that won the war and asks Clark what he’s done. Freddie chooses this because he thinks it will make Clark feel small and in turn re-inflate his own ego. However, Clark does not seem to react at all, leaving Freddie to begin to realize that he may not be able to discover self-meaning from this cause.

Anderson shows the futility of Freddie’s pursuit to find meaning in external sources through his relationship to alcohol. Freddie uses alcohol as a greeting for the saleswoman at the store he takes photos at, the woman at the end of the film that he has sex with while giving an impromptu processing, and it is the way that Dodd is introduced to Freddie. When Dodd asks Freddie to make him some more alcohol, Freddie asks him, “How do you like to feel?”

“And as a scientist and a connoisseur, I have no idea the contents of this remarkable potion.”

Freddie uses alcohol as a way to feel better about the world around him. He looks for this same comfort in the causes that he participates in. He begins making alcohol out of the literal incarnation of the military complex, the bombs on his warship, and when he is unable to get the feeling he wants from Dodd’s wall and window exercise he states, “It’s the same fucking wall. Nothing. That’s what I feel.” He is looking to these causes to feel better and to forget about the man he has been in the past. This is one of the reasons that Dodd is so appealing to Freddie when he states “Your memories aren’t welcome.” Freddie is trying to feel better about leaving Doris, to feel better about his mother in the asylum, to feel better about his father dying of alcoholism, the man he may have killed, and by extension probably himself one day.

“You look like my father.”

In Freddie’s participation with The Cause, The Master portrays a very honest relationship with religion. It’s not one the evangelicals of the believers or the non-believers would probably make, but one from someone who understands the desire for seeking out religion while ultimately being unable to travel the long haul with it. The name of “The Cause” is brilliant, as it works as a stand-in for so many causes that people seek out in an attempt to find meaning in their own lives. Yes, it is based strongly on the works of Scientology, but it isn’t a film about that particular religion, but religion and causes in general. This comparison is drawn out, in particular, when one juxtaposes the scenes of Freddie taking a Rorschach test when leaving the military, the processing that Freddie and various members of The Cause go through, and the fact that Dodd’s book cover for The Split saber is meant to look like a Rorschach test. The meaning one derives from these causes is subjective. That isn’t to say that it’s not real. An interesting scene has Freddie and Peggy going through some processing. Peggy tells Freddie to change her eyes from blue to black, and as he tells her that he has done so, her eyes change to black on the screen. This is a simple way of showing the ways that one’s mind can change the world around oneself based entirely on perspective. A world where angels and demons exist is a completely different world from one where they do not exist. Religion, and any cause for that matter, can change the whole world around its believers to the point where eyes that were once blue are no longer.

Yet, this is a story where Freddie doesn’t find what he’s looking for in The Cause. He is shown constantly struggling with the tingling feeling that everything Dodd says is completely fabricated. He tends to handle this feeling by attacking those around him that engender doubt; the dissenter at Margaret O’Brien’s processing, Dodd’s son, and finally Bill from New York. Freddie’s struggle with his belief leads him to leave The Cause briefly when Dodd is arrested, only to return eventually. Freddie finally has a transcendent moment during the window to wall walking test. He is shown for a while getting frustrated with the task and even pretending to participate. Eventually though, he says, “I can touch the stars. I can touch anything I want,” and Dodd stops him. He has come to a realization that he can do anything he wants. This is a core message of The Cause. Peggy is shown telling him in another processing scene that there’s something waiting for him, to think of what that thing is, to know that it is waiting for him, and that he can go get it whenever he wants. He wants Doris back. He told her that he’d return for her and that would be their time. Once Freddie reaches his enlightenment he becomes much more active in The Cause. At Dodd’s reading for his new book, though, Bill challenges the quality of the book and Freddie’s insecurities about this religion start to grow again. When Dodd takes Freddie out for another test, he tells Freddie to get on his motorcycle, to pick a point, and drive straight towards it. As if in a final test of the validity of this cause, Freddie picks Doris. He’s been told he can do anything he wants and that she should be waiting there for him. However, when he arrives, she no longer lives there. It has been seven years; she has married, moved away, and had two children. Freddie waited too long. He comes to the realization that some things do expire or were never meant to be, but more importantly that The Cause doesn’t have the answers he’s looking for.

Dodd calls Freddie and asks him to join them in London, saying that he can cure Freddie. Once Freddie arrives, Peggy also chimes in telling him that he looks sick and unhealthy. This is how they view Freddie, a sick man. However, Freddie has finally realized that he doesn’t need their help. He tells Peggy that he doesn’t look like that and that’s not how he is. In the end both Freddie and Dodd realize that The Cause can’t help Freddie. They don’t have his answers and both sides know this to be true. They both want Freddie to find his answers there because they genuinely love each other, but the answers aren’t there to be had. The two know that they must part ways forever. Freddie may not have figured out how to live without a master, he still drinks and is deeply hurt when he discovers Doris didn’t wait for him, but he has come closer. He didn’t become physically enraged when Doris’ mother broke his beliefs about Doris, and the only time we see Freddie sober throughout the entire film is when he is saying goodbye to Dodd. In the final scene, Freddie makes his only genuine interaction with a woman. He is shown processing her. The Cause may not have had all the answers for him, but it will be a part of him for the rest of his life.

“If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”

Ben Frye, Film writer at Seroword

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