The Sworn Enemy in ‘The Master’

“If you figure a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”

  • Lancaster Dodd, The Master (dir. by Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

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By the time this statement is spoken, we have seen the relationship between ex-Naval officer, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Master of the Cause, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) flourish and burn. The scene in which this exchange happens is in London. Freddie has travelled the Atlantic to face off The Master once more. On entering The Cause’s headquarters, he is judged by those who know him and ignored by those who do. There is no physical conflict, no shouting, only two men who are saddened by the demise of their friendship and the realisation that they can never see each other again. The Master is the head of The Cause, a cult that believes they are spirits living in a vessel and once life ends in one vessel, they simply move on to the next. Dodd’s mission is essentially one that lasts for eternity. Freddie staggers in a drunken state onto Dodd’s boat after accidentally poisoning a man with moonshine he had made. Freddie is an ex-marine, unemployed, sex-addicted alcoholic, making him the perfect challenge for his new methods to engage with past vessels. Completely unhinged and uninfluenced by society, Freddie refuses to be reined in by the restrictions put to him by Dodd and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams) resulting in the collapse of the American branch of the Cause and forcing Dodd to relocate to England.

The Master is regarded one of the best films of the 21st century so far and is one of my favourite films ever made (I have written a review which you can read here). Set in 1950, the film follows ex-marine, Freddie Quell, as he becomes associated with the Cause, a cult that believes that the spirit transcends the body (or vessel as is referred to) and simply changes after death. Although the film is set in a particular place at a particular time, its subject matter actually makes the film seem timeless. The characters wear clothes as expected of the time and the treatment of women and sex is reflective of the time but the sentiment transcends its period, much like the spirit, and can be argued as relevant in the 21st century. Of course, this film was made in the 21st century so it has the advantage of hindsight but I think Paul Thomas Anderson’s script captures the idea of the slave and master perfectly. The Cause is portrayed as a small religion, a friendly group of people who channel their past selves in order to eventually see where man began. Freddie is confused by everything and only wants to drink and have sex but these activities are rejected and he becomes uncomfortable and agitated. It is as though he is young again as we see flashbacks of him with his first love, Doris, before he leaves for war. There is hope in the young Freddie of returning home and marrying Doris but this dream is shattered on his arrival as he finds out she is married with two children. The Cause gives Freddie a purpose to live by hoping to engage with his inner self and control it, thus allowing him to become fully subservient to The Master.

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The ending brings the film full circle as Freddie has sex with a woman he meets in a pub and thinks about his time on the beach after the war, waiting to go home. The final shot is him sleeping beside a female form made of sand. It is peaceful and serene as Freddie appears comfortable. He has become “the first person in the history of the world” to live without serving a Master. He is the free spirit that Dodd achieves to ultimately control, the “sworn enemy” as he puts it.

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