The Master is one of a kind. The layers of storytelling are seemingly endless – not unlike a cinematic labyrinth. You can watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s epic five or six times, and I guarantee you’ll come out with a new detail you hadn’t noticed before. On the exterior, it’s a story about an alcoholic drifter named Freddie Quell, his post-war turmoil, and his inability to reintegrate into peace time. Fighting the pacific has left him with a bruised soul. Quell’s body contorts in strange shapes, his face is constantly twisted and grimaced. He drinks poison cocktails and drifts through a different North America, not knowing where he’ll end up next. Freddie’s persona demands attention — thanks to the masterful Joaquin Phoenix — he’s a blackened, out of work warrior with a wanderer’s spirit. One that suffers crying spells and brutal episodes of malice when lacking a sense of purpose.
Although The Master is set in the mid-twentieth century, Quell’s life mirrors many of today’s young adults, sharing the same lack of direction and erratic nature. Such cynicism and anti-spirituality circulates around us like a gloomy cloud. We dream of changing the world, only to deal in self destruction. Defined by laziness and narcissism, the older generations yearn to understand our obsession with burning bridges and leaving opportunities on a whim. Enter the wise, yet hopelessly inquisitive Lancaster Dodd.
Dodd is instantly entranced by the drunkard and mercifully takes him in. He’s so sure they’ve met before, but surely not in this life. Soon after, Freddie is recruited by The Cause. Lancaster’s cult believes our spirit is jumping from body to body through trillions of years. Quell undergoes a series of wayward processing and experiments into the mind. The plan is to bring Freddie back to his inherent “state of perfect.” But can he be cured? And, more importantly, does he want to be cured? Freddie mismatches answers, turning hostile after Dodd inquires about his past failures.
“You’ve wandered from the proper path, haven’t you?” asks Dodd, sure that his would-be recruit is troubled and desperate for guidance. Perhaps the leader of the Cause is just as doubtful and afraid as Freddie. With all of his published books, teachings, followers and learned experience, Dodd looks to this younger, rabid man with such wonder.
Some of us have wandered from the proper path. We traverse different continents looking for personal growth, experience and enlightenment. When the boredom takes hold, there’s no precedent for how we’ll react. Freddie runs from everything. He loved a girl in his hometown, only to climb aboard the next Asia bound ship. Maybe he needs the money, or could it be the flicking bomb inside us all, eager to explode when we’re so comfortable. Freddie’s enthusiasm for Lancaster’s Cause evaporates as soon as he’s asked difficult questions. He can’t stand studying himself or stepping into the past. The pain and uncertainty are too much for the young veteran, who boils it down to mere foolishness. Dodd also has moments of collapse. His composure and ego crumble when Freddie tells him the ultimate truth — his worst nightmare — “You’re making this shit up!” The cultish ideology of Dodd’s teachings prove worthless, even to himself.
Freddie doesn’t need a Master, but he’ll keep searching for one. Storming off on a motorcycle, away from Dodd and the Cause, back to his old ways of sleeping around and drinking. The hopeless search for meaning will still linger. Like Freddie, we will still get comfy in our adventures and risk the uncontrollable urge to leave it all behind, physically or emotionally. We are constant wanderers. Once in a while we brush up with the old lions before us, who have studied the world long enough to build a posse through authority. But life still escapes them, and they long to be like Freddie. It’s in our nature to not settle. We’re perpetual sufferers; navigating a path illuminated by a Master, but rarely taking it seriously.