Note: Obviously, spoilers for The Master will follow.
Arriving five years after There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest film, The Master, was released this fall to a wave of fanfare, critical acclaim, and more than a fair share of head scratching. While the majority of critics heaped praise upon the film, many of them were also left puzzling over the film’s meaning, specifically its subtle, somewhat open-ended ending.
The Master is undoubtedly Paul Thomas Anderson’s densest film, and while it can be appreciated for its visual beauty and superb acting upon a first viewing, it practically requires multiple viewings for the audience to fully grasp what Anderson is going for with the film. This is a film that functions along a very loose plot-line and time-frame, while occasionally weaving dreams and visions into the narrative without warning. There’s simply too much happening to understand it all on one go-around.
The Master is all about human nature, and the conflict that comes with reconciling that nature and desire with the longing for meaning and purpose. One one end of the spectrum we have Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a man so broken by his experiences in World War II (along with a family history of mental illness) that he is seemingly reduced to man at his most animalistic level.
He is able to conform to certain situations, but the threat of violent or sexual outbursts and conflicts is always lurking right below his surface. On the other end of the see-saw is Lancaster Dodd, a man who believes he’s found a way to conquer the uglier aspects of human nature, and put man on a path for a better life (and for an endless number of afterlives).
In Freddie, Dodd has found a perfect subject and pupil; if he can turn this broken man into a functioning, well-to-do citizen, than surely his Cause and its methods work. For Freddie, Dodd and his group present something he has been searching for since the beginning of the film: a caring family unit.
In his discharge interview from the Navy early in the film, Freddie is asked about two specific incidents: a crying spell, and a supposed vision. Freddie explains that the crying spell was caused by his receiving a letter from a girl named Doris back home, a girl that we learn he believes is the perfect woman, the one he wants to marry, and yet, has never gone back for after leaving her to work after the war. Freddie tells the interviewer that the supposed vision was actually just a dream, in which he, his mother and father were all sitting around the dinner table, laughing.
Only later in the film, during his initial processing session with Dodd, do we learn that his father is dead from alcoholism, while his mother has been committed to an insane asylum. This absence of a stable family in the past, couple with the post-traumatic stress disorders he’s carried home from the war, explain (without excusing) his behavior, constant drinking, and bouncing from woman to woman.
It also explains his placement of Doris on a pedestal despite not really knowing her all that well; he views her as his chance for stability and love, and though we don’t know much about his actual relationship with Doris (whether his flashbacks to their time together are real, imagined, or embellished is another discussion; what’s important is that he believes they’re real), it’s important to note the faith that he puts in the idea of her.
That’s why, when Quell is taken in by Dodd and finds that he is someone who not only cares about him but is willing to help him, he forms such a strong bond with him. They both have what the other needs and longs for, at least in the beginning.
I (unfortunately) do not have a window into Paul Thomas Anderson’s brain, so what follows is only my own opinion. But here is my take on what the ending of The Master means, and how that ending shapes the film’s meaning as a whole.
It should be noted that the film’s meaning functions on two levels, though they are intrinsically related. The first is the personal level, dealing with the characters (Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd), their motivations, and their eventual conclusions about their relationship with one another. The second level is what these actions mean for the film’s broader, religious allegories. To keep things simple, we’ll look at the personal meanings first, and the broader meaning second.
It’s hard to pin down exactly where the ‘ending’ of The Master really starts; the final movement of the film begins after Freddie motorcycles away from the Cause in the desert, but for the actual ending, let’s just consider the last few scenes of the film: Freddie’s meeting with Dodd in England, his pickup of the woman (Win) in the bar afterwards, and the coda-like shot of him lying down next to the sand-sculpture woman on the beach that ends the film.
Freddie returns to England at least three years after abandoning the Cause. He has already failed to get in touch with Doris, learning that she’s now 23, married, and living in Alabama.
The trip to England is sparked by a dream Freddie had while asleep in a movie theater, in which he receives a telephone call from Dodd telling him to come to England so that Dodd can cure him and tell him of where they met in a past life. We already know that Freddie has a history of confusing dreams and visions, and so he follows the dream’s instructions across the Atlantic for a final meeting with Dodd.
Freddie initially left Dodd and the Cause after their First Annual Conference in Phoenix (in May of 1950), apparently finally convinced by the changes in Dodd’s teachings in his second book (The Split Saber) that Dodd has been making everything up as he goes along.
During Dodd’s address to the crowd in the scene, Anderson cuts between Dodd explaining his new teachings and Freddie’s slowly falling face.It’s an image that shows that reality has finally hit Freddie, and he knows that this man does not possess the abilities he claims to possess, and that he is not truly able to help him or care for him in the way that he needs. And so, in one of the next scenes, Freddie flees.
So why go back to England? Because of Freddie’s desperate need for a family unit, for a caring other. The first words that Dodd speaks to Freddie over the phone in his dream are “I miss you.” With the idea of Doris now replaced by the reality of her being married, Freddie has no one he feels connected to.
It is key that his dream, a product of his own subconscious mind, chooses to present Dodd as a loving father, someone who misses him, someone who claims that they are “tied together” and wants him around. This is exactly the kind of relationship Freddie has longed for throughout the film, and so he follows his dream to meet Dodd.
The meeting, of course, does not go the way that Freddie may have expected. Dodd has no work for him, and after telling Freddie a ridiculous story about their past lives together (where they helped France fight off Prussian invaders), Freddie finally acknowledges once and for all that this man does not have what he needs and wants. He cannot help him in the way that he needs to be helped, or in the way he needs to be loved.
Dodd, for his part, seems to earnestly want Freddie to stay, and tells him that he can stay, but only if he stays for good. Dodd even plays on Freddie’s need for a close companion by slowly serenading him with the song “On a Slow Boat to China,” a move that pushes Freddie to tears.
This is also a tough moment for Dodd, who realizes that while he does love Freddie as something of a son (keeping with the frequent Anderson theme of exploring father-son relationships), he cannot have him around knowing the instability of his condition, not while his Cause has started to grow and prosper in England. Dodd is too busy serving other masters to truly help him, one of those masters being his wife, Peggy, who clearly wants nothing to do with Quell anymore.
Freddie, in tears at the end of the song, finally seems to accept his dream of coming to England and being welcomed with open arms was only ever that, a dream. He leaves, and then finds quick comfort in the only way that he knows how, by having a few drinks and picking up a young woman from a local bar.
While they have sex, he asks her a few of the same processing questions asked by The Cause, and seems amused at the fact that she doesn’t have any definite answers to them. After that, we see one last quick glimpse of him lying on the beach next to a woman made out of sand (a flashback to his time in the war), and the film ends.
These last two scenes, for Freddie, represent a return to what, for him, is normality, his true nature as formed by his past experiences.
That he asks Win (the girl from the bar) the processing questions indicates that perhaps he’s getting closer to being able to connect with people, or at least taking an interest in what they have to say, but the final shot on the sand seems to show that no matter what, the perfect woman for Freddie, that perfect idea of a family member-caregiver, can only be fictional. A sand castle. Something that he can find in a fantasy or a dream, but perhaps never in reality.
The eventual split between Quell and Dodd also helps to solidify the film’s ideas about organised religion. Well before The Master was ever released, it was being referred to as P.T. Anderson’s “scientology movie,” and while there are certainly similarities in both the time-frame and teachings of Dodd’s Cause with Scientology, The Cause can essentially stand in for any major, organised religion, except that it is in its start-up phase.
Once you get past some of its more ridiculous exterior teachings (time travel, curing cancer through examining past lives), The Cause has the same aims as many major religions: to improve the life of its followers, to help them live in harmony with the rest of the world, and to better prepare them for the next life. Throughout the film, we see the basic teachings and tenants of The Cause slowly unravel and change.
The Cause is able to gain more followers, but only at the expense of changing certain teachings (like the processing intake method) from their original meanings. This is especially evident in the scenes at the Cause’s Phoenix Conference, where several early followers (including Freddy) seem to take issue with the changes and alterations to Dodd’s new teachings in his second book.
This all comes back to the idea of serving a master. While Dodd is Master to his followers, the growth and success of The Cause rests on his shoulders, and so adapting it so that it can thrive is his own Master. As the organization grows, concessions are made to ensure that it gains more and more power. This is not the first time Anderson has probed the ugly underbelly of organised faith; he explored a similar theme in the battle between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood.
But even with the knowledge that Anderson probably isn’t organised religion’s biggest fan, what does the ending of The Master say about his thoughts on the subject? When Freddie leaves Dodd, it seems to indicate that while Dodd’s belief system may work for more people now, it doesn’t have anything to offer someone with the problems that Freddie has. I interpret this as Anderson saying that while a belief system like The Cause may help some people sometimes, it cannot help everyone all the time.
Some are able to deal with the changes and suck it up to stay involved, maybe only for personal comfort. A perfect example of this would be Val, Dodd’s son who earlier expressed doubt that anything his father was saying was true, and yet is still working for him years later when Freddie visits England. However others are displaced by these changes and concessions, and often those that truly need help (like Freddie) are left behind. If the teachings are changed and ideas conceded in order to gain a greater following, how real can its promises ever be?
However, I don’t think that the film is completely bleak on a cosmic scale. When Freddie asks Win processing questions while having sex with her, he tells her that “maybe this isn’t the only life,” to which she responds “I hope not.” Both of them smile after this, content with the mystery of it all. With this, I think Anderson is saying that in the end it really is just a mystery, and anyone claiming to have all the answers (like Dodd) is fooling themselves.
There may be something else after this – other lives, an afterlife, or nothing – but we’ll never know what it is until the time comes. Until then, people (like Freddie) are going to continue to do what they can to get through this life as best they can. For some people, that means joining a Cause, for others, it means drinking and taking comfort with others whenever they can.
Overall, The Master is a film about how we try to understand and make it through our own lives. Do we need meaning? Purpose? Or are we simply animals searching for the comfort (however temporary) that our nature drives us to find?
The DVD/Blu-Ray cover of the The Master shows the film’s three main characters laid out like a Rorschach test. I suppose the film functions in a manner similar to that test; everyone who watches it may see something different. Feel free to post your thoughts on The Master, what you think of the film, its ending, and its meaning, in the comment section below.
This article was first posted on March 11, 2013