A Riff on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Film The Master (Including a Take on the Ending)

by Edwin Turner

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1. I finally saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master last night. I’m going to riff on the film. Fair warning:this riff will contain spoilers—I’ll talk about the film’s final scene, for instance (and if you just want to read about the ending, scroll down to point 23, after the embedded video).

2. The first hour of The Master is probably the best thing PTA has done.

3. The Master begins on a beach somewhere in the South Pacific. These are the final days of WWII. Navy boy Freddie Quell (portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix), solitary from his fellows, pours from a can of the mystic moonshine he brews into a coconut he’s hacked open with a machete. He then drinks the potion and mimes chopping off his hand with the machete. After this, he humps a woman made of sand and jerks off into the ocean.

4. The idyll of the Pacific beach contrasts strongly with Quell’s tortured psyche—it’s clear from the film’s first few moments that he’s borderline deranged, a sex-obsessed alcoholic who was damaged long before the war.

5. Quell is also a profoundly talented chemist (or alchemist) capable of brewing strange cocktails mixed from whatever’s at hand. These potions intrigue Lancaster Dodd (henceforth Master, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who samples a flask and asks Quell to brew more. Quell says he’ll make Master something different from that first batch, asking him, “How do you want to feel?”

6. “How do you want to feel?”

This question governs The Master, and the film is at its best when probing and plumbing these depths.

7. Back to my second statement: The first hour or so of The Master is probably the best thing PTA has done. Freddie Quell is an intriguing figure, a desperate madman who recapitulates the crimes of Oedipus where ever he goes.

He is The Misfit of Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” trying to match faith to the phenomenal world.

He is Jonah, fleeing angry Yaweh, stowing away on a ship.

8. The first scenes of The Master borrow liberally from the Terrence Malick playbook:

The opening scene on the beach strongly recalls the opening of The Thin Red Line, and the subsequent scenes where Quell maybe murders a man and then must run feel like the opening minutes of Days of Heaven.

Like Malick, PTA lets the gorgeous cinematography convey meaning; dialog passes through the background of the film.

9. The dialog begins when Quell meets Master, charismatic leader of “The Cause.” You know of course that Master is based on L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. It’s worth pointing out that the film isn’t really about Scientology, or cults, or charlatans—although these points are explored, for sure—it’s really about the search for meaning, for stability. For some kind of peace.

10. The friendship—and friendship-as-dialog—between Master and Quell is by far the most compelling part of The Master, and the film’s best scene is a long episode where Master initiates “Processing” with Quell—delving into the man’s founding traumas to purify his spirit. I usually hate to laud actors, but Hoffman and Phoenix are sublime here, fully inhabiting the characters through the scenes deep emotional shifts.

The Master never surpasses this scene.

11. Indeed, the biggest failure of the film is that there’s no moment in its back half that can respond to the Processing scene. The film’s final scene attempts to mirror it in some ways, but the attempt lacks the weight. It’s off balance.

12. I feel the need to preface what I’m about to write by saying very clearly:

Paul Thomas Anderson is an extremely gifted auteur, a filmmaker who has, moreso than perhaps any of his contemporaries, continued in the (anti-)tradition of the New Hollywood films of the seventies. I would rather watch a PTA film than a film by just about anybody.

But:

The guy has a real problem sticking the ending. His films fail to cohere, to transcend the sum of their parts. This might be an editing issue or a plotting issue or something more commercially-driven, like running time. I don’t know.

13. Exceptions to PTA not sticking the ending:

Punch Drunk Love, easily his most concise and focused film, a long short story from a filmmaker who works in sprawling novels.

Possibly Boogie Nights, which sags in the final third but is nevertheless buoyed by an energetic scene featuring Alfred Molina, a mixtape, some cocaine, and fireworks. (This scene is lifted from Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope, by the way).

14. For the most part though, PTA’s films swell outside of the margins that their own narratives establish in the beginning of each film (I’m not sure if this sentence makes sense—what I mean is that the films’ endings fall apart w/r/t the films’ beginnings).

In There Will Be Blood, PTA uses a stunning, violent, unforgettable final moment as a punchline to the film. It’s probably what most of us remember, and it’s certainly a great way to close the epic. Still: When I rewatch Blood, I start to become impatient with the film’s meandering after its thrilling opening hour. I start to anticipate the horrific punchline.

15. The easiest example to point to of PTA’s undisciplined sprawl is Magnolia. I can’t think of a film with a stronger opening that so quickly devolves into Altmanesque chaos. Which is the point, yes, I get—but Magnolia, again, is a PTA film which can’t live up to its first hour. (Again, PTA covers over the back end’s sloppiness with a marvelous final scene).

16. So, to return to The Master: I went into the film with high expectations—hoping that this would be the film by PTA that coheres, that is more than just a collection of fantastic performances and amazing scenes. And for the first hour, I was enthralled: I cared deeply about Freddie Quell, found his strange passions heartbreaking, was moved by his bizarre relationship with Master.

And the film is great—it really is—but it’s not as great as I wanted it to be. (Which, yes, I know, says nothing about the film and everything about me).

17. The film’s seams start to show after the magical sea voyage from California to New York. The first few scenes in New York are fascinating (especially when Master is confronted by a skeptic at a party), but as the The Cause moves back West over land, PTA increasingly relies on montages and shorter scenes that seem like placeholders to cobble together the film’s longer sections.

18. The last truly transcendent scene is where Master sings “I’ll Go No More A-Roving,” and it comes at almost exactly the half-way point of the film’s 138 minute running time.

19. All kinds of interesting stuff happens after the “Roving” scene—and PTA seems content to raise more mysteries than he resolves, which I’m fine with—but a long montage showcasing the different Processing techniques of The Cause sucks the energy right out of the film.

20. What follows is a lot of meandering, a lot of unexplained—or worse, unexplored—moments between characters that shift focus away from the relationship between Master and Quell.

21. Maybe I want a longer edit of The Master.

22. Here’s a 20 minute reel of cut footage:

23. And what about the ending of The Master? As I tried to convey in points 13-15, PTA usually closes with a very strong scene or image. With the exception of There Will Be Blood, I’d argue that the final moments of PTA’s films generally depict moments of love, redemption, or reconciliation. The Master fits into this trend. How so?

24. Okay: So The Master is in some ways formally Oedipal.

Quell’s crimes are two-fold: He kills a man who he says reminds him of his father and he has sex with his aunt. The film leaves open the possibility that both of these crimes—crimes he confesses to Master during Processing—are simply displacements for the more direct sins of killing his real father and fucking his real mother.

The Oedipal tensions that underwrite the film are strongly on display in the relationship between Master and Quell: Master is in love with Quell; Quell needs a father figure. All sorts of weird familial displacements ensue between Master’s family members and Quell.

The Oedipal theme also evinces in the film’s motif of breasts, bellies, and other pregnancy images. While not many of The Cause’s ideas are expressed clearly in The Master, the idea that all founding traumas are recorded in/on the soul is made plain several times. Put another way, all people are subjected to traumas that exist in pre-Oedipal, pre-lingual, pre-conscious states.

Quell wants to return to the womb to correct or ameliorate or avoid these traumas. The impossibility of achieving this desire drives him to self-medicate with his homemade brews and to see sex in everything.

The film ends with Quell having sex with a stranger he picks up in a bar. They laugh heartily—another of the film’s motifs—laughter as a measurement of joy, but also dejection, also hysteria, also fear, also irrationality, also no language, just laughter—they laugh heartily, and in a shot that foregrounds his sex partner’s large breasts, Quell begins Processing her.

25. We then get the film’s last line, delivered with laughter: “Stick it back in, it fell out.”

The referent of the “it” is, on the surface level, Quell’s penis, but it also serves as a substitution for Quell himself, who would like to return to a mother, to start again in a new life. (The scene, a riff on Quell’s first Processing with Master, can also be read as the displaced sexual consummation between the two men).

The film’s final image gives us Quell lying down next to the woman made of sand, her huge breasts erect, dominating the shot; he curls into her, peaceful, serene, fetal. The shot is deceptive: It suggests reconciliation or even redemption, but the memory of peace is just one fragment of Quell’s terribly fragmented life. Significantly, the moment comes from the beginning of the film. If Quell is to be reborn and live again—as Master believes all people are—it is clear that he has not transcended his base animal urges.

When Quell awakes, he awakes to trauma.

26. Having riffed on the film’s end, I think the film is probably better than I gave it credit for earlier. It’s a cold Sunday. I think I’ll watch The Master again.

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24 Responses to “A Riff on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Film The Master (Including a Take on the Ending)”

  1. A lot of interesting points on a very interesting film. I feel the grind of the montage of “processing,” i.e. the “wall vs window”, the “do not react” test, relate well to the breaking down of Freddie’s character, and help, along with the film’s sense of humor, anchor the second half of the film. It’s in those moments he gives The Cause a final shot and tries to get some meaning or catharsis from Master’s seemingly dehumanizing tests. He comes out saying he can touch “anything” including “the stars.” He goes so far to repeat the pacing motion during the Phoenix conference as almost a prayer or stress reliever. But he’s already begun to see through Masters lies, his repeated speech tricks and cliches, the false veneer. Freddie as “dog,” “animal” or “dragon” seems to fade, with him ditching Master in the desert. His demeanor while going home and trying to set things right with Doris or his final attempt to keep Master as a friend, separate from the movement he has created, separate from the “past life” explanation for their knowing each other, seems to show some improvement, some hope. He’s developed almost a sense of swager. When told he doesn’t look healthy, his response is “I don’t look that way.” This is how I am, take it or leave it kind of attitude. A very brave move for a man that’s always on the run.

    I must also mention the jail cell scene. If that scene doesn’t give balance to the first processing scene on the boat, I don’t know what does.

    I like you’re thought of the final sex scene as a “displaced sexual consummation between the two men,” a very interesting point. As for the negative interpretation of the ending, I feel it’s a little more uplifting. Freddie wants to be loved, held and cared about, like most people. The final shot on the beach seems to be the thought of any man at war or away from home. He’s able to pick up the woman in the bar rather innocently. He starts using his sense of humor to twist Master’s words into some cheesy pick up lines or pillow talk, continuing that sense of swager. It’s much more light hearted then some of the previous sex and or fantasy scenes. A little hope for Freddie and everyone else trying to forget the past.

    Great film made even greater by discourse like this. Thoughts on PT doing Inherent Vice or Phoenix as Doc Sportello?

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply to my rambling, Josh.

      I’m excited about PTA doing Pynchon. Inherent Vice is easily the most (only?) filmable novel from Pynchon, and I like Phoenix (although for Doc Sportello I see someone…older).

      As far as the montage—yeah, I get how it shows the breaking down/building up of Processing, but it feels *soooooo* drawn out, and almost silly, really, when set against the more direct scenes. I’m gonna watch it again this afternoon, so I’ll reconsider some of these points, but I do feel like the second half is somewhat deflationary. It’s also hard for me to see Quell as healed or redeemed—the film doesn’t emphasize his drinking, but he’s clearly still an alcoholic wreck–and he doesn’t look healthy.

      You might be right about the jail scene as a response to the Processing scene (it culminates in Master’s cathartic release of urine/territorial pissing, while Quell is bound and has destroyed the urinal). But I felt like the scene came out of nowhere—just minutes earlier Quell not only attacked Master’s son for not having faith in the man, he also fought the cops so that he could go with Master. But maybe that’s his slave mentality. Gotta serve somebody.

  2. Also, “Stick it back in, it fell out” is up there for greatest final lines from a film, which I feel There Will Be Blood’s “I’m finished” would also rank high on.

  3. I think Freddy will eventually find himself in San Francisco and become a minor Beat Poet, his poems riffing on the language of the Cause. After that? I see him becoming one of the Plumbers involved in the Watergate Scandal.

  4. One point about PTA and the ending of his films: I think the reason his endings are so weak is because he doesn’t want to his films to end, so he does so begrudgingly, and it makes him aggressive towards the audience, I think. If PTA he had the choice his films be Rivette-ian in their run times. No one is worse at endings, though, than Spielberg. Never has there been a filmmaker in which Genius and Moron co-mingle like they do in Spielberg.

    • I mostly dislike Spielberg—apart from the Indiana Jones movies,which I have a boyhood affection for, and AI, which I genuinely love, his movie are mostly awful, technically proficient manipulations. Hook was the first movie I ever saw in a theater and thought, My god, I hate this film! I also hated Jurassic Park, which I perhaps mentally associate with this sort of explosion of spectacle and sound in place of storytelling and emotion. Just awful. I do like Saving Private Ryan, but it’s almost ruined by the final scene with what’s his face crying over a grave.

  5. Reading Freddie through Nietzsche, Foucault and Baudrillard and The Inscription of the Body which Phoenix does to perfection. All his past is in his body which does not change during or after proccesing. So we know if we observe this.

    Endings = Death. Reading David Foster Wallace’s essay endings, they never end, they just trail off. No cliched tight pithy end sentence for that master of prose. OK for film?

    So Freddie was “dead” for 7 minutes if I understood that correctly. Baudrillard: When you almost die but don’t, your selves diverge, and who you were lives in a parallel universe from who you are now after that near death experience arranged by Destiny. Oe writes that when you face death, two universes face you.

    So if the brain trauma during 7 minutes is what I heard, then reading through Malabou and trauma and brain plasticity, Freddie has constructed a new self, different from the self before. I would read it this way rather than entering the “psychological swamp of interpretation” as Foucault calls it. Something to think about anyway.

  6. Thank you, you have clarified some occlusion I had after watching it and I’ll take the up excellent prompt in your final words and watch it again. I haven’t had to do that since Inception.

  7. I’m glad you mentioned Punch Drunk Love. I think it’s just about perfect. And wonderfully subtle and beautiful.

  8. Interesting thoughts, though I must admit i’m still slightly mystified by the regard in which so many people seem to hold PTA as an artist. I mean, I generally enjoy his films. I liked the offbeat style of Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love – the former in particular had some great scenes, and both have excellent performances from Hoffman – though I think the more recent works have been somewhat grandiose, with plenty of volume but not too much in the way of genuine depth.

    He’s among the more interesting and talented mainstream (well, mainstream-ish) American directors, but I’ve certainly never walked out of a PTA film feeling like he has expanded my sense of what film can achieve as a medium, or conveyed a unique artistic vision. For me he doesn’t really stand comparison with contemporary auteurs like Kiarostami, Haneke, Claire Denis, Bela Tarr, the Dardennes, Von Trier, Kaurismaki, Mario Gomes, Ceylan, Sokurov, Malick, Wong Kar-Wai or Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

    • I’m not a fanboy of PTA, and I think that he tends to show his influences too much (Scorsese, Altman, Malick), but I do think his films convey an auteur’s vision. In some ways, he makes the same film again and again–a loner/Misfit with grandiose ideas/delusions works toward achieving some goal.

      • I agree. His films are littered with footnotes — countless allusions and mimicries of other masters’ styles (much like Tarantino). Magnolia, though I appreciate it a lot, and consider it to be a great movie, roughly follows the mold of Altman’s far superior Short Cuts (released only, what?–five years before Anderson’s film?) and Punch Drunk Love seems like a cross between Altman’s Popeye and Scorsese’s After Hours (expropriating its Kafkaesque depiction of strange women of the city for the overbearing, familiar women of the suburbs). But because of Punch Drunk Love and The Master, I think Anderson does belong on any serious list of contemporary greats / pantheon directors. Punch Drunk Love is one of the most subtly reflexive films I have ever seen (up there with the best of Lynch and Haneke and Kiarostami). Recall, for instance, the significant blue and red lens flaring that the movie features. Those flares reveal the presence of a lens in the love story between Barry(‘s blue) and Lena(‘s red). Also recall the fact that Barry himself prompts and concludes the film’s score …on a harmonium the movie arbitrarily decided to deliver to him! (that last tid-bit is hermeneutical, I know) The Master, too, I think solidifies Anderson’s status as an important director. Just like Punch Drunk Love, it successfully manages to convey its protagonist’s sensibilities. It has the integrity to NOT be, or feel, cohesive because yielding such a feel, such an effect, would not amount to any faithful representation. Freddy Quell’s life goes nowhere and all over the place, like the waves in the opening scene. One last thing: though the montage sequence did not work for you, I appreciated it as a jointly artful and organic modulation of pace to the film. Chills went up the back of my neck when he changed her eyes from blue to black and my jaw dropped during the dance scene.

  9. Biblioklept, did you watch the film again? “The Master” seems to be one of those movies that offers new/different feelings the second viewing. I’d love to know what you thought after seeing it again. I watched it three times and fell more and more in love with it each time. Really interesting take on the ending. Never thought about the Oedipal stuff. I think you’re dead on.

    I personally thought the ending was strong. I thought it spoke to significant growth for Freddie (significant for him). It’s the most intimate experience/relationship Freddie’s had with a woman that we’ve seen. I think it’s the healthiest relationship Freddie’s been in yet. It’s an actual woman (she’s not made of sand), he’s engaged (he didn’t pass out on her the way he did with the department store girl), she’s his own age (not an adolescent, who he fearfully ran away from). Yes, Freddie’s drunk, yes, it’s a casual one-night stand, but I saw it as undeniable growth on Freddie’s part. The last line says it all. It fell out. He wants it back in. He wants to engage, participate.

    PTA’s past movies have spent much time navigating the “father-son” relationship terrain, but I felt “The Master” was different. This film seemed, to me anyway, to be wholly about the mother (a point you make and I think you’re dead on) – one’s search for love and security, both from the universe (mother with a capitol M – symbolized by sand woman) & a female companion. You said it right, and it’s a thought I’ve had myself – he wants to return to the womb. I couldn’t help but see this symbolized in the very small room the final scene takes place in. I mean, there’s an off-screen window to the right shedding light onto the couple. If that doesn’t speak birth canal I don’t know what does. I think this is new territory for PTA. A new focus. And despite any flaws it might have (all films do), that’s what makes “The Master” exciting to me – other than the fact that I just loved the movie. (I’m a fanboy.)

    Yes, I agree, Freddie will wake to trauma, but he’s more okay with that reality than he’s ever been. He’s more okay with who he is and who he is not. And I think what PTA is saying (one of his ideas anyway) is that’s all anybody can ask for. That’s the best Freddie, Lancaster, anybody can do. And that’s good enough. I leave the theater uplifted.

    • I did watch it again, and I think that it’s probably a better film than I gave it credit for—I think that the film’s final scene probably does answer to the intensity of the Processing scene, for many of the reasons you point out—it shows some growth, maturity for Quell. He’s still damaged but he’s doing better.
      I think that the film does lack balance though, which makes the back end seem like an unraveling when set against the first hour. Going back (and having written this riff), I was more attuned to the film’s grammar/symbols/etc., and my expectations had shifted. I enjoyed it much more the second time (“enjoy” might not be the best word), but I still found the montage of Processing interminable. I think the film would’ve been much stronger with some of the material from the reel I embedded cut into it.
      Thanks for your insightful comment, JNE—I think your points about the end are spot on.

  10. 1. I watched this last night and started wondering if I needed to reread “The Secret Sharer” to help understand the movie. I only have dim memories of it, but given the nautical setting and the close relationship between the main two characters, it seems like PTA might’ve used it as a jumping-off point (along with the history of Scientology) just as he did with Oil! and There Will be Blood.

    2. I will need to watch the 20 minutes of cut footage. It felt as though a scene was missing prior to the desert scene. The more I think about it, the more I think the unraveling/decomposition of the second half is a fitting way to end the movie (much in the way that Gravity’s Rainbow decomposes), but it could’ve been smoother. Perhaps the extra footage provides the softer unraveling.

    3. The nude dance scene makes me wonder how much of the movie is actually being presented from Freddie’s point of view. Since he’s unreliable, it becomes harder to determine what’s truly happening in certain scenes.

    • 1. I’ll try to reread Secret Sharer this week too.
      2. The 20 minutes of footage helps to clarify/deepen the end of the movie; there’s a whole explanation in it of why the manuscript is out there buried in the desert. I think it smooths things out.
      3. Yeah, the end could definitely be in Quell’s imagination—there’s also the dream he has in the theater—I was unsure if he actually woke up or not—like was the rest of the film a dream?

  11. One thing you missed. Dionysian vs Apollonian traits ala Nietzsche. The prison scene displays this perfectly. It’s the main theme of the film if you ask me.

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