Reader’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is a film that has an awful lot to say, and yet it frequently gets reduced to one simple title. To the general public, or at least the small percentage of people which have actually heard of it, The Master has been commonly referred to as "The Scientology Movie." I've heard it on several occasions and, of course, I understand why it receives that title. Whether it be the obvious parallels to Scientology or the tabloid attention the film received among its release in regards to the fallout of friends PTA and Tom Cruise as a result of the film. I've never questioned this identification, until this last viewing in which I could no longer stand idly by.
Perhaps these people see this description as an apt selling point or, sadly, this is truly all they took away from the film. Regardless, the connections between this film and Scientology are undeniable, however Anderson's messages, as this film truly has loads to say, are not as pinpointed and narrow as "Scientology is bad." Of course the film could be interpreted and analyzed to solely be an indictment on said religion, and just as easily applied to any and all religions. The latter is much closer to Anderson's message as I have perceived it to be, in that all organized religion is inherently flawed by the most basic human traits. However, the message, at least to me, is much more positive than that general idea sounds.
Freddie simply wants to find happiness after his time as a soldier. He had thought he had stored happiness in a safe place in the form of Doris, but of course that did not work out and thusly Freddie hops around hunting for happiness and acceptance. This happiness and sense of belonging are too easily offered up by Lancaster Dodd, "The Master" himself, for Freddie to decline his invitation. Of course Mr. Dodd does not want Freddie in his current state, he wants to have him match the blueprint of what is considered, at least by his writings to be a righteous and acceptable man. However, Freddie could not care less about being a righteous and good man, he's a sexual deviant with violent tendencies and a very short and irrational temper. Not exactly an angel. And yet, Freddie goes along with them, and he goes through the tortuous hazing that follows. However, what Freddie once saw as a chance to have family, stability, a higher purpose and sense of control is tossed away as soon as he is given the means to outrun them on the motorcycle. He wanted to fit in and tried to do so, however, he could not both be himself while being a part of The Cause. It is ultimately Freddie's interactions with other people that cause him to spoil his sense of community and happiness.
This specific message that Anderson is conveying is best demonstrated in the opening and closing moments of the film. At the start, we see Freddie join in with a group of other soldiers who have built a woman out of sand. Freddie's antics are amusing for a mere moment to them, but it does not take long for them to grow tired of Freddie's overly-sexual attempts at humour and Freddie quickly realizes he cannot play as he wishes in the playgrounds of others. Just as one cannot live upon the lives of others. At the end of the film, Freddie has built his own sand woman, and he now lays next to her, smiling. Which is of course in contrast emotionally as to how he laid next to the sand woman built by others. The sand woman represents faith and happiness. Anderson is saying that happiness can not be found fitting the mould of someone else's ideals and guidelines for life and all that goes along with organized religion. No, happiness is found when one finds themselves and creates their own interpretation of faith, identity, existence and life itself. The Master is not simply "The Scientology Movie" or a movie mocking the idea of spirituality and faith but rather one that embraces those concepts and attempts to offers it viewer a possible path to happiness. The film is not necessarily accessible to all but it is exploring something we can all relate to. Paul Thomas Anderson takes the essance of humanity and breaks it down to grains of sand.