by Tony Dayoub
"Life is but a dream."
Waves ebb and flow, created by the wake a boat leaves behind. Jonny Greenwood's dissonant musical chords thunder loudly. The recurring image, and its changing relationship to the soundtrack, mark three distinct chapters in Paul Thomas Anderson's beautifully elliptical The Master. The first chapter introduces Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a sneering, gnarly, hunchback of a man, a variation of There Will Be Blood's upright Daniel Plainview. During World War II, Quell spends his time on a naval gunboat making moonshine. The women he dreams of during his shore leaves are not human beings but objects for him to jerk off or hump to, as he does with a sand mermaid his shipmates build on some Pacific beach.
At its most primal level, The Master is a revision of Anderson's last film. Like Plainview, Quell is alienated, angry at the world, base, lamely inching forward on instinct alone. Where Plainview's turn-of-the-century era celebrated such intrepid independence and defiance, the postwar period Quell lives in encourages conformity. And just like this "alone-ness" leads Plainview to become mired in a battle of wills with a preacher bent on restraining his individuality, Quell, himself an interloper on humanity, falls in the thrall of a charismatic charlatan pushing a philosophy known as the Cause, one Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a stand in for Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
The second occurrence of the wave imagery, coupled with more harmonious music from Greenwood this time, signals the start of a chapter in which Quell and Dodd begin a little dance, each courting the other. The Master reinterprets Plainview's war with Eli Sunday chiefly by inverting the seniority of its two leads. Where Plainview could only look down on the sniveling snot-nosed Sunday, the fatherless Quell longs to be accepted by the paternal Dodd. Dodd seeks to yoke Quell the way one would a bull, and, in harnessing the rangy troublemaker, utilize him to plow the ground in anticipation of Dodd's spiritual path. Theirs is a symbiotic relationship in which Dodd finds inspiration in the tormented Quell, while Quell draws peace from the structured programming inflicted by Dodd and his Cause.
The Master must seem perplexing to audiences used to the classic Hollywood story structure. It has led many to promote the idea that The Master is a free-associative, directionless evocation of a story rather than the rigorously structured tale it really is. True, Anderson does elide past a lot of what one might think is necessary information. But watch the film from the wild Quell's point of view (which Anderson stresses is the dominant viewpoint in one scene, shot from Quell's perspective, where every woman in the room is naked), and The Master can be read as a memory piece. It's a fever dream in which only the "good parts" stand out for an animalistic man who refuses to be tamed by his elder, despite his intellectual yearning to conform. And The Master, honestly, really just is all "good parts."
At the heart of The Master is the same argument made in There Will Be Blood. Anderson advocates for the individual railing against the collective. Quell's arc may be a more circuitous one than Plainview's; youth and a diffuse sense of self, exacerbated by the events of the war, may complicate the path Quell must travel in a way age and confidence absolves Plainview from the same kind of challenges. But the final recurrence of the waves, this time accompanied only by the water's serene, diegetic sounds, indicate Quell ultimately takes a step towards enlightenment without depending on the oppressive Dodd for help. And if Quell doesn't entirely find peace, it's still an affirmation that he's progressing towards a form of contentment instead of stagnating under the influence of one man's cult.