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Contents copyright 2021 by Valerie Harms

My take on "The Master", Paul Anderson's film

Much has been said about how hard this film is to understand. I didn’t find it hard but I am psychologically attuned just as another might be mathematically. (I found “Inception” a lot harder.) Here’s my take on postmodern Paul Anderson’s latest offering.

The film starts with flowing water in the wake of a ship, an image that is returned to at intervals, as though marking chapter breaks or reminding us how we are on a “ship of fools.” Freddie, a young man who’s been to war, is mostly drunken and a bundle of raw nerves. He’s at the same time shy, sensitive, modest, and aggressive. In the beginning he lies on the sand near the outline of a woman, whom he’s tried to fuck (drunkenly); this image is returned to in the end showing how Freddie yearns for love.

In an adult that usually means sex. Freddie’s parents have been lacking. His father may have been a drunk. His mother may have died; whatever, Freddie is an abandoned, betrayed child. He can’t stand being ordered about or crowded.

Think of a dog who has been abandoned, who when caged will thrash around for hour after hour. (More on dog analogy below.*)

Freddie leaps onto the ship that is run by Dodd, the leader of a “school.” Dodd’s “course” can be compared to ANY doctrine with practices/lingo, be it religious or psychological method (Baptists, Catholics, Freudians, Buddhist). Dodd earnestly would like to help Freddie and proceeds to try to help him be more in control of his rash instincts. He does succeed.

Good example: Freddie goes ballistic when the police arrest Dodd and take both to jail. Freddie wants to protect Dodd, by now a father figure. In adjoining cells, Freddie wrecks his while Dodd calmly watches and talks him down.

Dodd has genuine feeling for Freddie. They share some habits, like the love for alcohol and cigarettes. They can embrace in good-natured wrestling, showing affection for each other.

But then several things happen. Dodd publishes a second book. He claims that “you” are the “source” of all secrets. His followers have a hard time with that and some other changes, such as the use of imagination.

Dodd takes Freddie and his son and son’s wife out to the desert and proposes an extreme motorcycle stunt. He goes first, pointing at a target — and returning. Freddie does not return. He is as if propelled by the speed into the future, in which we see him return to his last love’s home (after six years of being gone) and learn that she married someone else.

Sometime later he calls Dodd and Dodd says he misses him very much and invites him to visit. By now Dodd’s organization has a school.

On Freddie’s return Dodd sits at a large desk in a gigantic hall, designed to make anyone feel small except for Dodd. His wife sits in the shadows behind him. She comes forward and coldly baits Freddie. I believe she both intuits that he is escaping the fold and that her husband possibly loves him more than her.

Freddie is shy, awkward, hesitant. With menace Dodd sings “I’d like to be on a slow boat to China with you – alone.”

Next scene Freddie walking along a tree-lined road. He has left, he’s in the natural world. He has innate, though stunted wisdom.

2nd to last scene: Freddie in a bar, entices a woman to bed with him. This woman may or may not be a member of the group. Freddie laughingly says to her the first lines of training he got: “Say your name. Who are you?” The practice is now a game.

The final scene after some more water flowing is of Freddie lying on a beach next to the sand woman, lying down with a semblance of love.


Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are outstanding in their very difficult roles, especially Phoenix.
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