Essays · Movies

What is the Meaning of ‘The Master’?

Following the release of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson sent critics on a quest to uncover meaning. We go along for the ride.
The Master Psh Desert
By  · Published on September 23rd, 2012

Now that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is in slightly wider release than it was in its opening weekend, perhaps it is time to discuss this period drama, which is perplexing both critics and regular moviegoers alike. More than the fact that a lot of people are now able to finally see the film, the interesting thing is that many have now watched it two or three times (at least) in an attempt to get more out of the thing. Countless reviews have pointed out that The Master is difficult to fully understand on a single viewing, and audiences of all levels of intellect are coming out declaring that they need to see it again. Plenty are doing so, but are they any closer to finding answers?

No film requires or should require multiple viewings, and pretty much any film watched more than once can deliver previously unseen pieces and welcome new considerations. But The Master, whether constructed out of certain meaning or, as might be hinted through a significant line from the film, Anderson just made it all up as he went along without too much thought, is the sort of glorious cinema that we look at as a fun puzzle. We can imagine that one day a documentary similar to Room 237 will present obsessive PTA fans over-analyzing everything from the commanding performances to the film’s subtler nooks and crannies.

Maybe the reality is that there is nothing there. And yet maybe that lack of meaning is in fact its meaning. As with Prometheus, which was possibly intended as an unsolvable riddle as a parallel to the very questions of life, the universe and everything that drive its characters, The Master could similarly be meant to confound us with a belief in or curiosity in some unknowable thing, a parallel to its own characters’ quests. But The Master is not concerned enough with religion and god and the meaning of life to yield such a parallel. Still, the remarks about Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) changing his technique to involve imagination instead of memory could be a comment on both faith and readings of the film itself.

Interpreting art is not necessarily about solving a mystery or discovering a truth. Even if Anderson has a foundational point or catechetical explanation at hand, what we get out of the film is often what matters. Anderson could truly mean for Dodd to be the master of the title, for example, even though there’s a significant discrepancy between his being called simply “Master” rather than “The Master” (and vice versa). Viewers coming away with the idea that the title actually refers to Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) or Peggy (Amy Adams) or women in general, anything we’re powerless against in general, Anderson as the director in charge of his audience, the audience in control over the material as its interpreter or anything else is not dismissible or incorrect.

And if you prefer to or can only appreciate the literal surface story, a character study involving a primal, natural sort of man hanging out with an orderly, intellectual type, there’s nothing wrong with that either. Moviegoers shouldn’t be made to feel like they didn’t get it, especially if they still like the movie they’ve just seen. One thing that everyone can be sure of, however, is that The Master is not about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, even in an allegorical or roman à clef sense.

If you’re still looking for concrete answers or just want to hear others’ interpretations of what The Master means, here are some ideas from around the web:

After three viewings, I’m still not sure I know the answer to the “what’s it all about” question, but I lean [toward the interpretation that] The Master is above all a love story between Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged WWII vet, Freddie Quell, and Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s charismatic charlatan, Lancaster Dodd. And that relationship is powerful and funny and twisted and strange enough that maybe that’s all the movie needs to be about. ‐ Dana Stevens, Slate

At its core, The Master is a love story between two men with titanic egos and wills, who seem at first glance to be diametric opposites yet may simply be shadows of each other. This master-servant duo wants to control and be controlled, explain and be understood, and from their very first meet-cute moment on a docked ship it’s clear that these men are too volatile and white-hot to make their relationship work. Hearts will be broken, minds will be fucked. ‐ James Ponsoldt, “Filmmaker”

The film deals with the not-so-latent homosexuality in Dodd. Hubbard posited that homosexuality was a “perversion” and that Scientology could help raise people out of the “low emotion” that “produces it.” There are numerous scenes in The Master that examine this, in particular Dodd’s relationship with Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix). Dodd seems to be sexually attracted to Quell’s animalistic nature, e.g. that scene where they’re wrestling with each other on the front lawn after Quell is released from prison, or the scene where Dodd’s wife, played by Amy Adams, gives him a handjob, along with a spiel about “cumming for her” and eradicating himself of negative (read: homosexual) thoughts. Oh, and doesn’t the husband of Dodd’s daughter seem rather… effete? Which explains why she, too, is attracted to Quell, who is pure testosterone. ‐ Marlow Stern, The Daily Beast

Why are these two opposites so strongly attracted? You could guess homoeroticism, but there too the movie is vague. Is it that each senses an intriguing challenge to his idea of himself? Always somewhere in the frame is Dodd’s wife, Peggy, sweet-faced, calm, never missing a thing, always calmly there when she’s needed. ‐ Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

If what The Master is “about” can even be boiled down, then it might be about acting: To ask if a person’s nature is inherently fixed or if it can be engineered from the outside is to essentially ask if one person can teach another how to act. ‐ Karina Longworth, L.A. Weekly

If it has a lesson to offer it is perhaps this: that constant motion is itself a kind of stasis, the last trap of a wandering soul, the endless wake of a boat to nowhere. ‐ Christopher Orr, “The Atlantic”

Less about [Scientology’s] specific set of beliefs than about how humans rely on belief systems in general to try and lift themselves out of an elemental rage, and to assert, yes, that man is not an animal. ‐ Glenn Kenny, MSN

It examines the grinding sensation of what it means to be part animal and part human ‐ with ruminations on life, evolution, science, religion. This isn’t a film that has the answers; It’s a film about people who think they do. ‐ Sasha Stone, Awards Daily

What it is says about human nature and individualism [is] as man struggles to find connection and meaning between a primitive depraved nature and a civilized enlightened mindset, its not clear which aspect of nature triumphs. ‐ Kenny Miles, The Movie Blog

Could Freddie and Dodd be two parts of L. Ron Hubbard? LRH was in the Navy, and was somewhat of a photographer, but here it is Freddie, not Dodd who has those traits. […] these are two exaggerated aspects of all humans, who need each other to be complete. Dodd lusts for power, dominance, and control, and Freddie needs a direction to channel his urges. But who is in more desperate need? ‐ Copernicus (Andy Howell), Ain’t It Cool News

We can read “The Master” as an allegory that shows how contemporary America is adjusting to a new reality brought on by a different act of war ‐ 9/11 ‐ and how we have reacted to the destruction of our old moral order by clinging to new certainties. In one crucial scene, Dodd’s methods are questioned by a skeptic at a party. Their exchange, in which Dodd becomes increasingly agitated and defensive by a set of simple questions, reminded me of nearly every talking head I have seen on cable news of late ‐ the kind of pundit that is wrapped so tightly in his or her narrow philosophy that real engagement becomes impossible. Freddie Quell gravitates towards Dodd’s certainty, but those of us who are desperate for such moral certitude today must choose between Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow and Bill Maher. ‐ Reel Change

Let me suggest one reading of the film that surely falls on the “that’s a stretch” end of the spectrum: The title of this work may refer to Anderson himself. His films have become major events, and justifiably so […] the case can be made that Anderson is working at a higher level than any other filmmaker today, and The Master may be his master class. ‐ Christian Hamaker,

Since everybody has such a vastly different reading of what The Master is about, that to me suggests a shortcoming on behalf of the filmmakers. Even they don’t know what they are trying to say. ‐ Ramin Setoodeh, The Daily Beast

A new kind of cinematic truth. This is a movie that defies understanding even as it compels reverent, astonished belief. ‐ A.O. Scott, The New York Times

Also check out our own positive (‘A-’) review by Victor Escobar and negative (‘D’) review by Louis Plamondon.

Related Topics: ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.