This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
citizn’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
For many, The Master was one of the most anticipated films of the year. Since his feature film debut, Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson has developed and matured into one of America's greatest directors. When word spread that his next film would tackle the subject of Scientology, it became all the more intriguing. However, having now seen the film, I don't think it's quite the scathing critique of the religious sect that many expected; but I also don't think Anderson set out with that in mind. For me, the film is a fascinating character study that depicts the battle between our intellectual and instinctual parts.
Freddie Quell is a former Navy man turned drifter. When the film begins, we see a series of vignettes into Freddie's life. He is presented as a crude man — one who humps a female sand-figure, concocts his own liquors out of various chemicals and solvents, and ends up in a physical confrontation or two. It's clear that he acts outside of society's accepted norms.
On the other hand, Lancaster Dodd (also known as "Master") is the leader of a spiritual movement known as "The Cause." He is first seen hosting a party on a yacht in anticipation of his daughter's wedding. This is also where Freddie first meets Dodd. Dodd tells him that he is a "writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher." Even if it's not all true, Dodd represents a life of luxury and intelligence.
The two characters immediately forge a relationship, and Dodd takes Freddie under his wing. It is not unlike the relationship of a dog and his master. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the film is titled The Master (even though Anderson recently revealed that he did not come up with the title himself). There are two key scenes where Dodd is threatened and Freddie reacts aggressively in an effort to protect his master like a guard dog. The first scene occurs in New York when John More questions Dodd's teachings. Freddie at first throws something at More and Dodd tells him to stop. Later, Freddie goes to More's home and beats him up. When he returns to tell Dodd what he did, Dodd scolds him and compares him to a beast that eats its own feces. The second scene occurs in Philadelphia when the police arrive to take Dodd to jail. Again, Freddie is very protective and must be restrained. Likewise, as Dodd is being taken away, he seems most concerned with looking after Freddie, saying, "Don't hurt him!"
When they both end up in neighboring prison cells, the juxtaposition of intellectual and instinctual can be seen in full force. Freddie acts out in physical rage, while Dodd stands very calmly. I forget the exact quote, but Dodd tells him that his fear of imprisonment has been with him for trillions of years. In other words, he was once again exhibiting instinctual behavior. There are also other moments throughout the film that depict Freddie as nothing more than an animal. Dodd says "good boy" or "bad boy" much like an owner would praise or scold his dog. Even Freddie's posture appears simian in nature.
Thinking back to when Freddie joined The Cause, he catches a recording of one of Dodd's discourses in which he says, "Man is not an animal. We are not a part of the animal kingdom; we sit far above that crowd — perched as spirits, not beasts." I found this line to be extremely important to the meaning of the film. Dodd believes that people can change — that they can deny their animalistic impulses and behave in an intelligent manner, much like our culture dictates. It's interesting, too, that Freddie's last name is Quell. The literal meaning of this word suggests the act of suppression. Despite the fact that Freddie seems to want change, he constantly reverts to his own impulsive behavior. And for all of us, this is a battle we must face.