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Film / The Master

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No, not that Master.

Freddie Quell: I don't know what I told you but if you have work for me to do I can do it.
Lancaster Dodd: You seem so familiar to me.
Freddie Quell: Yeah. What do you do?
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.

The Master is the sixth feature film of director Paul Thomas Anderson. It was released on September 14, 2012.

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix (in his first film role after a two year hiatus) as Freddie Quell, a misguided young man who, after demobilizing from World War II, falls under the sway of charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a Church of Happyology-style cult called the Cause, and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams). From there on, the film becomes a character study between Dodd and Freddie as their relationship varies between "Leader and Follower", "Teacher and Student", "Father and Son" and "Master and Slave".

Laura Dern appears as a devotee of the Cause who despite her zeal asks one too many pesky questions. Rami Malek appears in one of his first big movie roles as Dodd's son-in-law Clark, who seems jealous of Freddie's attractiveness to both Dodd and Clark's wife. Jesse Plemons plays Dodd's son Val, who is pretty cynical about the Cause.

Also, this film is significant for being the first visual narrative production shot primarily on 70 millimeter film in nearly 16 years, the last being the 1996 film adaptation of Hamlet.

This film provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Freddie makes drinks out of paint thinner and siphons alcohol out of torpedoes. He passes out drunk on a date; he only joins the Cause in the first place after he wanders onto Dodd's boat drunk and passes out.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Freddie suffers from some combination of PTSD and whatever mental illness it is that's implied to run in his family.
  • Ambiguous Situation: The film is full of them. Did Freddie really poison that farm worker—and did he do it intentionally or accidentally? Did Dodd really send Freddie that phone call, or did he just imagine it? And how exactly did Freddie get out of jail? Your guess is as good as ours.
  • The Artifact: After a scene where Dodd sings a song for his followers at a party and is clearly enjoying the attention from the ladies, Peggy gives him a handjob in the bathroom. She tells him to keep his philandering discreet, then makes a more obscure comment: "It didn't work for them, and it won't work for you." This is a remnant from an earlier draft of the screenplay in which Dodd, in the party scene, makes some pointed remarks about Joseph Smith and the early Mormons, who were polygamists.
  • Berserk Button: For Lancaster Dodd, it's having his methods questioned.
    • Same goes for Freddie, who often responds with violence.
  • Book Ends:
    • Crude sexual comments by Freddie are both the first and last lines of the movie.
    • The film begins and ends with the same title card.
  • The Cameo: Melora Walters, who starred in each of P.T. Anderson's first three films, here can be heard singing "A Tisket, A Tasket" in the scene in Phoenix where Dodd yells at Helen (Laura Dern) for questioning his new book.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Freddie's past as a mall photographer gets used to make official publicity photos for the Cause. It's pretty much the only constructive thing we see Freddie do for Dodd.
  • Church of Happyology: Lancaster Dodd is the charismatic leader of a California cult called "The Cause". Anderson admitted to drawing on the early history of Scientology for the movie but also said The Cause is just the backdrop for a character study. Much of the doctrine of The Cause is clearly lifted from Scientology, and Dodd resembles L. Ron Hubbard as well.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: When Dodd and Freddie are in jail.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Though not played for comedy. Notice how happy and well-adjusted Dodd is? Us neither.
    • This also extends to Freddy. While "The Cause" puports to be able to help reconcile the traumas of people's past lived, Dodd is unable to help Freddy, his biggest disciple, process his current traumas.
  • Cult: Discussed Trope. A skeptic at a party points out some of the flaws in Dodd's more nonsensical babbling, then says that if his doctrines can't be questioned, then The Cause is "the will of one man" which "meets the definition of a cult." Freddie later beats the skeptic up in retaliation.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: John More directly questions Dodd's beliefs to his face. This results in a scene where the former uses quick and clear logic while the latter is clearly bullshitting with long tangents, gradually getting so worked up that he has nothing left to say but "Pig fuck". Dodd's attempt to save face is then ruined by Freddie throwing a tomato at More, with their party then leaving mortified.
  • Dissonant Serenity: After Dodd and Freddie are arrested, Freddie goes berserk in his cell: smashing the toilet, pounding his head against the walls and cot, cursing out the other inmates, etc. Dodd, by comparison, calmly leans against his cot, waiting patiently for Freddie to stop and uses the bathroom.
  • Extreme Omnisexual: Freddie violates a woman made out of sand on a beach. He also admits to having sex with his aunt several times, because ''[he] was drunk and she looked good."
  • Fan Disservice:
    • Freddie trying to seduce a store model with his paint-thinner cocktail, in a dank and dirty green-lit room.
    • A super-creepy scene where Dodd is singing at a party and Freddie visualizes all the female guests naked. This is immediately followed by the least sexy hand job in history, in which Peggy jerks Dodd off into a bathroom sink while telling him to keep his affairs discreet.
  • Flashback: Both to Freddie's backstory and to earlier events in the movie's timeline.
  • Gainax Ending: Freddie leaves The Cause, but not before Dodd says that he will be his enemy in another life, followed by him singing "Slow Boat to China" to a crying Freddie. After coming to terms with the fact that he'll never see Dodd again, he picks up a girl at a bar. Then after they finish having sex he asks her questions from his first session, then it cuts to him sleeping with the sand woman from the opening scenes.
    Dodd: "If you leave me now, in the next life you will be my sworn enemy. And I will show you no mercy."
  • Gargle Blaster: Freddie makes extremely strong cocktails using strange recipes. One of his cocktails accidentally poisons a farm worker, which gets him run off the farm. Dodd takes a liking to his concoctions, which he finds incredibly rough. We later see that Freddie puts paint thinner in the cocktails. Dodd asks him point-blank if Freddie poisoned him, but Freddie denies it.
  • I Have No Son!: Implied with Dodd and his daughter Elizabeth. In their last meeting, Freddie asks where Elizabeth is and Peggy says "DCF". Freddie responds with a surprised "Really?". The movie does not explain further but this may be inspired by the Scientology practice of declaring individuals who are perceived to be anti-Scientology as "Suppressive Persons" (SP). Such persons are shunned by everyone in the church, which is called "Disconnect." This is likely part of what "DCF" stands for.
  • I'll Be in My Bunk: After building - and briefly humping - a sand sculpture of a woman, Freddie masturbates into the ocean.
  • Irony: At the beginning of Freddie's time with the Cause, Dodd's daughter Elizabeth is fervently devoted to it while his son Val is openly dismissive, even telling Freddie that Dodd is making it up as he goes along. By the time Dodd sets up shop in England several years later, Val is still with the Cause while Elizabeth has apparently been expelled from it.
  • Jerkass Realization: Freddie glosses over his destructive behavior until Dodd makes him answer a long series of personal questions without hesitating or blinking.
  • Kavorka Man: Freddie has no trouble getting female attention, despite being a belligerent and drunken weirdo who's clearly suffering from mental health problems.
  • Lady Macbeth: Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is this in a big way.
  • The Lost Lenore: Doris acts as this to Freddie. Near the end, Freddie and the audience find out that she moved to Alabama and started a family.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Dodd's a pretty textbook example of this, especially around Freddie, whom he repeatedly manipulates into staying in the cult despite his mistreatment.
  • The Master: Appropriately enough, Dodd is this to his adherents, who sometimes address him as "Master".
  • May–December Romance: Freddie's age is never given, but given his surprise that Doris is still in high school, their relationship is clearly this.
  • Meaningful Name: Freddie Quell's surname is pronounced like "Quill," and he's described as Dodd's muse. Dodd is shown posing with a quill for one of Freddie's photographs.
    • The name can also refer to how Freddie's animalistic nature and urges can never be completely suppressed, even by people like Dodd who make an attempt at it and seem to succeed.
  • Mind Screw: A different example than most. The film isn't out-and-out surreal, it just has a slightly/extremely unsettling atmosphere that makes for uncomfortable viewing.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Lancaster Dodd for L. Ron Hubbard. His wife Peggy is also obliquely based on Hubbard's wife Mary Sue, with her name likely being an allusion.note 
  • Oedipus Complex: Heavily implied with Freddie, who tells an Army psychologist that he had a dream involving his mother and father but refuses to divulge what happens in it, and tries to poison a fellow farm worker whom he claims looks like his father.
  • The One That Got Away: Doris, the teenage girl that Freddie ditched—his one big regret, as he reveals to Dodd in processing.
  • The Oner: It would probably be easier to list the scenes that aren't made up of a handful of long single takes cut together. Noteworthy ones include a fight between Freddie and a customer at his department store photography booth, Freddie raging in his prison cell, and Lancaster singing surrounded by naked women (in Freddie's mind at least).
  • Past-Life Memories: The Cause's "processing" involves recalling these, and dealing with the trauma left by them (just like Scientology's "auditing"). However, Dodd later RetCons this, though he claims to have known Freddie before in 1871 during the siege of Paris.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who also collaborated with Anderson on There Will Be Blood.
  • Precision F-Strike: At a dinner party, Dodd gives a particularly nasty one to a man who questions his methods, showing that he's not accustomed to being challenged.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The dysfunctional, nearly animalistic Freddie and the calm, eloquent psychological abuser Lancaster Dodd form a very dark version of this trope. Demonstrated extremely effectively when both are hauled into jail, and the camera shows Freddie on the left side of the screen thrashing about and screaming his head off, and Dodd on the right side of the screen standing stock still and staring at the ground.
  • Reincarnation: The Cause teaches reincarnation as part of its beliefs. They use hypnotherapy to retrieve supposed Past-Life Memories, and thus help people deal with trauma from then. However, their leader Dodd then claims they aren't past life memories, but just imagined. Yet he still believes reincarnation, telling Freddie the pair knew each other in a previous life as French scientists during the 1870s.
  • Retcon: invoked In his second book, Dodd decides that his followers are actually imagining past lives rather than recalling them. This radically changes the Cause's beliefs, to some followers' dismay.
  • Scenery Porn: Shot in 70mm, although, oddly, it is mostly an indoor drama. The few scenes that do take advantage of the 70mm format are exceptional, though—Freddie's Navy ship cutting a wake through the ocean, Freddie being chased out into a misty field at early morning by a group of day laborers, a gorgeous shot of Dodd's ship passing under the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, a shot of Freddie and Dodd riding motorcycles in the desert.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Freddie receives therapy for shell-shock after the war, though it's left ambiguous as to whether his problems are preexisting. All we see from his war days are him lounging on an island and a ship, while he admits to having a sexual relationship with his aunt as a youth. He certainly has ongoing psychological issues after the war, being largely unable to communicate with people, while also often erupting in moments of terrifying rage. He even stands around in an odd hunched posture with his hands on his hips.
  • Shout-Out: The scenes of Freddie in a psychiatric hospital were inspired by the famous John Huston documentary Let There Be Light, with Anderson going so far as to lift bits of dialogue from the Huston film.
  • Sophomore Slump: invoked Dodd's followers candidly admit that his second book for the Cause is not as good as the first.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: As befitting a film about an insane man joining a cult. Characters refer to conversations we never see taking place, opening questions of whether they really happened.
  • Title Drop: Dodd is called "Master" by every character who addresses him directly except for his daughter who calls him "Daddy". But there's a more thematically appropriate title drop at the end, when Dodd is realizing that Freddie is going to leave him for good.
    Dodd: 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.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: Dodd and his followers take one after a skeptic embarrasses Dodd at a party.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Freddie assaults some police officers coming to arrest Dodd, and gets arrested himself. Dodd gets sentenced and released, but we don't see how Freddie's case was resolved, he simply turns up at the house. It could be he was just out on bail but nothing more is shown, and it's quite unlikely charges of assaulting police were simply dropped, as those tend to get taken very seriously.