The Subtle Genius of Paul Thomas Anderson's 'The Master'

Updated on June 14, 2018
Chris Desiderio profile image

Chris is an aspiring director and screenwriter from New York, and is currently pursuing a degree in Digital Filmmaking.

Joaquin Phoenix as 'Freddie Quell'
Joaquin Phoenix as 'Freddie Quell' | Source

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master perfectly exemplifies what it means to be an effective director and visual storyteller. Throughout the film, Anderson expertly weaves large-scale cultural commentary with raw, visceral emotion. On the surface, the film appears to be a reflection on the vulnerability of post-World War II life, and how charismatic leaders use this to manipulate the disenfranchised into a state of sycophantism and cult-like groupthink. However, upon closer inspection of the subtext, the story unfolds into something completely different: a complicated love story between two men. One who’s looking for structure, and another who yearns for a sense of freedom. With this film, P.T. Anderson is able to narrow the scope of the story to a single relationship, effectively subverting the expectations of the audience for the film to be an attack on Scientology. In broad terms, The Master is a platonic love story between two straight men who’s stark character differences ultimately prevent them from being in each other’s lives.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as 'Lancaster Dodd'
Philip Seymour Hoffman as 'Lancaster Dodd' | Source

The Master tells the story of Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix), an impulsive and volatile World War II vet struggling to adjust to society. In his travels, he meets a charismatic but measured writer named Lancaster Dodd (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), who leads a philosophical movement called ‘The Cause’. Dodd takes a liking to Freddie, and takes him under his wing as something of a protégé. As the story progresses, The Cause begins to evolve from a small philosophical movement to full-scale religion; one scene in which a follower (played by Laura Dern) questions Dodd about his changing of the wording in one of his writings from “can you recall” to “can you imagine”, leads to an outburst from Dodd, subtly highlighting the ideological shift to something much more fantastical, and eventually dogmatic. Freddie’s violent tendencies worry Dodd’s wife (played by Amy Adams) and the members of the growing movement, leading to Freddie eventually abandoning The Cause in search of the love of his life Doris, only to find out that she’s gotten married and started a family. A dejected and lost Freddie attempts to rekindle his relationship with Dodd and The Cause, who are now situated in England; this proves to be futile, leaving Freddie heartbroken and on his own once again at the end of the story.

P.T. Anderson on set.
P.T. Anderson on set. | Source

The scene I’m going to analyze is the final scene between Freddie and Dodd. In this scene, a desperate and disoriented Freddie meets with Dodd in England, in hopes of rekindling their relationship and reestablishing himself within the hierarchy of The Cause. This is following a dream he has, in which Dodd calls him and informs him about their meeting in a past life. Freddie arrives in England to find that The Cause has grown substantially; we see the lavish interior of their headquarters, and Dodd’s office as the meeting between the two commences. Dodd is also wearing an immaculate suit in contrast to Freddie’s dull, brown sweater, in an effort on Anderson’s part to further highlight the differences between the two. The first close up of Dodd is closer to a medium shot, and shows more of his desk; this underscores the meeting beginning as something of a reintroduction for the two of them after not seeing each other for awhile, rather than a personal confrontation. However, as the scene progresses and the emotions come out, the close ups become more intimate, causing an increased tonal intensity. It’s worth noting that these close up shots are not quick, and often linger, forcing the audience to feel the tension between them. The lack of focus on the room, and the focus on the two of them also accentuates the idea that this is truly a film about these two characters, and The Cause is secondary within the structure of the story. Also, Dodd’s face in this scene is noticeably obscured by shadows; this symbolizes the spirit and enthusiastic idealism that he’s lost. In the beginning of the scene, Dodd condescendingly encourages Freddie to continue living freely, before telling him that if he can find a way to live without a “master” in his life, he should tell the world how to do so, because he would be the first in human history. With this, Dodd is telling Freddie that free-spirited people like him, with no structure in their lives and nothing to humble themselves before, will forever wander aimlessly without a sense of fulfillment. What’s being left unsaid here is the fact that Dodd himself yearns to be free from the constraints of his family and The Cause; his admiration and love for Freddie is proven time and time again, with his refusal to turn his back on him despite clear signs that his instability is a danger to his loved ones and The Cause as a whole. So with this in mind, it certainly would not be a stretch to say that Dodd is trying to prove this to himself as much as he is to Freddie. With them both fighting back tears, Freddie tries to make one last earnest attempt at believing in the tenets of the religion by asking Dodd about the dream he had. Dodd then fabricates a story about he and Freddie in a past life fighting off Prussian invaders in France; it is at this moment that Freddie realizes that Dodd’s teachings are a sham, and that he will never again be able to take solace in The Cause like he had in the past. Dodd then gives him an ultimatum: he can leave and never return, or he can stay and devote himself fully to The Cause. Freddie responds to this proposition by saying “maybe in the next life”, sarcastically implying that he has seen through Dodd’s teachings and has no interest in returning. Dodd then tells him that if they do indeed meet in the afterlife, they will be sworn enemies, and he will show him no mercy. After a brief pause, Dodd sings a song to Freddie entitled ‘On A Slow Boat To China’. Here are some of the lyrics of the song:

"I'd like to get you on a slow boat to China

All to myself alone

Get you and keep you in my arms evermore

Leave all your lovers weeping on the faraway shore."

This is a very odd and jarring moment in the film, but it’s deliberate; with this, Anderson is clearly emphasizing the idea of a mutual love between the two, while hinting to the audience that there could be a romantic component to their relationship. This is done in a very subtly comedic way, considering how serious and emotional the scene is. The scene ends with Freddie tearfully staring at Dodd as the score comes back in, cementing the end of the story and their presence in each other’s lives.


The nuance and subtext of this scene speak to the big picture of the story. That is, the contrast between Freddie and Dodd, and how these two kinds of people interact. Freddie is someone whose entire state of being precludes him from being able to maintain a “normal” life. His inability to curb both his sexual and his violent impulses is what keeps him on the margins of society, and is what makes him unable to stay in one place for too long. While he is clearly a troubled person, and is often too emotional for his own good, he is certainly free to do what he wants. His unapologetic perversity is what attracts Dodd to him. Dodd is in many ways opposite to Freddie; he has a family, and he has responsibilities as a leader. As The Cause grows, Dodd becomes progressively more constricted by his position as the all-knowing, charismatic head of a movement, so when he stumbles across someone like Freddie, he can’t help but envy his ability to eschew normal societal values. What they have in common is that they’re both dreamers; the only difference is that Freddie can’t help but live with his heart on his sleeve, while Dodd yearns to get back to that state of mind. This is why it’s so heartbreaking to see Dodd turn his back on Freddie, and surrender to responsibilities of something you know he regrets starting. All Dodd wants to do is be like Freddie, but he just can’t. This is what lies beneath the character’s words, and what Anderson utilizes to build emotion in the story.


The Master is a demonstration of how a director can craft subtext, and subtly utilize mise-en-scène to convey a layered story. While the performances should certainly not go unrecognized, the delicate eye of director Paul Thomas Anderson is what gives life to the story. Like a good director, he makes deliberate choices about what’s the audience sees, and what the audience should take away from the story in his own distinct style. The ability to communicate visually is what makes filmmaking a unique artform, and it’s the director’s responsibility to do it effectively.


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