The key to understanding The Master is in understanding the Subject.
I know that I’m in the minority, but I consider The Master to be the best film to-date from Paul Thomas Anderson. It doesn’t have the charm of Boogie Nights or the sincerity of Magnolia, but what it has instead is an intelligence about the human condition that’s heavier than the cruiser that carried Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) home from World War II.
The Master is a character study of the most-complex sort, one that doesn’t rely on plot points for narrative handholds, but rather the evolving/devolving frame of Freddie’s mind. It is a story that charts a man’s mental journey, not his physical one, and as such it has left many a viewer confused, confounded, and even bored by what they saw as a purposeless narrative, not realizing that Freddie’s purposeless is the narrative. He is man out of time, out of sorts, almost out of his mind, and without any guidance through life other than his own skewed perceptions. He is a subject in need of a master, but at the same time he is a Ronin incapable of following anyone, and it is this dichotomy of character that makes him so endlessly fascinating to some and instantly unsettling to others.
The key to understanding The Master is understanding Freddie while accepting that only some of him is meant to be understood, and other parts are meant to remain mired in unreachable places that can only be witnessed and responded to emotionally, not intellectually.
Whether you’re one of the folks who wrote off The Master as unlikable or perplexing, or you’re like me, a soapbox advocate of it, either way you owe it to yourself to watch the following video essay from Film Radar which attempts an exploration of the hostile landscape that is the soul of Freddie Quell, starting with the character’s origin – a real soldier featured in John Huston’s wartime documentary Let There Be Light – right through his most-telling scenes in Anderson’s film. It shines a spotlight on the dark corners of character than make Freddie so polarizing and ultimately profound in his perversions, and it is a must-watch supplement to a must-watch film.