Bothered by Past Failures : Thoughts on The Master

“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 in the history of the world.”

-Lancaster Dodd

Freddie Quell is a wanderer, going to and fro across the face of the earth; he’s a “dirty animal”, a “scoundrel” and a “silly boy”, as his would-be master, Lancaster Dodd, labels him. Drinking, brawling, full of lies and lasciviousness is Freddie Quell searching for his way back into the world after the war. He finds someone who seems to have what he wants, a wife and family and, most importantly, a Cause.

Paul Thomas Anderson, director of 2007’s There Will Be Blood, continues his run of films on the development of America in microcosm. There Will Be Blood recapitulated the American origin through the oil revolution taking her up to the second world war. The Master picks up just after the war and continues up to the cusp of the sixties. His next project, Inherent Vice, will bridge the gap between his earlier films Boogie Nights (80s), Magnolia (90s) and Punchdrunk Love (00s). The Master takes up America’s troubled history with cults, but only to tell a far more interesting story on faith, the future and love.


Lancaster Dodd sees his former self in Freddie. Dodd’s cool demeanor cracks throughout the film: angry outbursts, threats, a penchant for boozing; and just as he has “mastered” himself so too he seeks to master Freddie. But more than that he sees something he isn’t in Freddie Quell. He see’s someone free, beholden to none. Contrary to his title, Lancaster Dodd is not the master. His cause is supported by a number of prominent women, who are systematically lost, and who (like his ex-wives) become virulent critics thereafter. Moreso is Dodd mastered by his wife Peggy. She leads the movement’s strategy, drives her husband to write, and manipulates him (in the etymological sense, even).

In Freddie he sees unpredictability and a “new way”. In their first scene together, Freddie disrupts his “processing” by loudly breaking wind and collapses into giggles. Lancaster begrudgingly allows himself a chuckle, adding “Yes, it is good to laugh.” Yet as he spends time with Freddie this approach to life masters him and he later reveals “a new way” that is laughter. As Peggy sees her husband pulled under the influence of Freddie she begins demarcating her territory, first trying to put Freddie beneath her thumb, then, failing that, driving him away. In the penultimate scene, she is the one who closes the door to Freddie rejoining the movement.


The other thing that Freddie has that Dodd doesn’t is sleep. There is no rest for Dodd, he is pulled from one side of the country to the other and back. He is never shown sleeping, neither is he shown lying down, whereas Freddie is constantly sleeping, dissolute and drunken though it is. But even though Freddie sleeps he gets no rest. Cinematically this is echoed in the exercise of Freddie crossing the room, from wall to window, but more subtly in the backwards/ forwards of the opening act and the there and back of not only the geography, but also Freddie’s return to Doris’ home. When Freddie finally breaks away from Dodd it is on a motorcycle. Rather than returning back to the beginning, as Dodd had, Freddie keeps driving, finally moving on, moving forward.

In the final scene Freddie is coupled with Winn Manchester (whose name is significant) finally finding rest. Some have taken the final scene as Freddie trying to become a cult leader himself, mimicking the process with Winn, but with the return to the beach, to the sand lady, the tenderness of Freddie signals that he has finally found rest. His anguish had finally been quelled.

The Master sand woman

[Click here to read my review of There Will Be Blood]


3 thoughts on “Bothered by Past Failures : Thoughts on The Master

  1. Great review, great snapshots. I wanted to like this movie, but did not. Seymour and Adams are just not good actors. They are always the same in every movie, and always boring with a few exceptions.

  2. Wow.

    I don’t know what you’re looking for in an actor if that’s how you feel. While I don’t typically like the films Adams chooses (exceptions being The Master & Junebug) she always seems to do most with the role. According to my scorecard she’s beat Meryl Streep twice despite getting far less to work with in Julie & Julia and Doubt.

    The distance between Lancaster Dodd and Phil Parma, Capote and the Mattress Man, Father Flynn and Lester Bangs, shows a greater range than nearly any actor in Hollywood. I would say only Daniel D. Lewis has him beat on that account.

    I think you must mean Leo DiCaprio is always the same and always boring.

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