The Master

The Master ★★★★

Growing up in a mostly Christian community, I’ve witnessed far too many hurt people turn to dogmatic religion to solve all their problems. When faced with conflict, crisis, or even a small sense of loneliness, it’s easy for people to distract themselves from their issues by practicing established traditions and plugging into a community of supposedly like-minded people.

Blind faith also provides an easy avenue for reassigning the blame for the origin of conflict — if you’re part of an eternal spiritual struggle, then suddenly, the bad things you’ve done aren’t your fault — thereby absolving individuals of personal responsibility for creation and resolution of tension. When confronted with the world’s problems, I’ve seen many people choose prayer over tangible action as their preferred means of combatting evil and pain. And although they do possess some cathartic benefits, rituals like prayer and confession ultimately pale in comparison to more direct methods of problem-solving.

All this is to say: I think The Master does an incredible job depicting the shortcomings of organized religion. Although most spiritual texts aim to make their adherents more whole, the organizations that they spawn often work against their admirable goals. Paul Thomas Anderson, through his Scientology-adjacent Cause in this film, shows religion’s inability to account for trauma, mental illness, and sexuality. 

At first glance, Freddie Quell is the ideal target for any religion — he’s lonely, erratic, aimless, and in desperate need for a higher purpose. It’s no surprise that Lancaster Dodd latches onto him so quickly — Freddie’s potential transformation could serve as the perfect example of the Cause’s legitimacy, almost like a twisted, psycho-spiritual play on My Fair Lady or Trading Places

But neither Dodd nor the Cause can adequately account for Freddie’s issues — he’s traumatized after fighting a war for a country that neglects him, he’s unquestionably suffering from some form of mental illness, and he’s so horny. By showing that the Cause, a recently-formed and frequently ridiculous religion, is unable to address Freddie’s challenges, Anderson successfully clarifies how older religions also fail to address these topics. In my experience, Christians frequently try to pray away their sexual desires, or attempt to solve depression by asking God to make them feel better, or even blame mental health issues on demons and personal failures. There’s almost no space in the mainstream strand of American evangelical Christianity to meaningfully grapple with these “issues.” Anderson uses an extreme, obvious example (the Cause) to highlight the wider truth of organized religion’s failure — the Cause can’t “fix” Freddie, just as other faiths often fail to “fix” their adherents.

There’s clearly much more at play in The Master than just religious critique — many have already observed the Freudian symbolism, the homoerotic undertones, the dark inversion of Boogie Nights’ found family, and the titular master-servant dynamic.

I don’t think The Master develops any of these themes as deeply or as completely as it could, and, despite the multitude of possible readings and thematic threads, the film ultimately feels more incomplete than any of Anderson’s previous work. It makes me feel like I’m missing something, and leaves a cold impression where his older films shine with bittersweet warmth (save for There Will Be Blood, which is equally cold but far more calculated). The performances from Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams are all amazing, but aren’t the best work from any of them. This is a rich film, but I find it disappointingly difficult to love or even admire.

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