[I'm not sure a film like The Master actually has spoilers, but if so: spoiler alert.]
Near the beginning of The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s much-acclaimed new film about an L. Ron Hubbard-style cult leader, alcoholic WWII vet Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, takes an ink blot test and sees penises and vaginas in every image. By the end of the film, director Anderson is doing pretty much the same thing.
The brilliantly acted and well-made film, though watchable through its more than two hour running time, has left even its admirers baffled. Reviewer after reviewer heaped the film with praise while admitting they did not really know what it was all about.
Personally, I thought it was about less than meets the eye. In following Quell’s fascination with cult leader Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson has presented us with a dated, not to mention worn out, vision of humankind. The film struck me as a final helping of late modernism, with a dollop of reductionist Freud on top. Thanks, but we’ve had enough.
As I read it, the film seems to say that reality is so harsh that people will drink anything from rocket fuel to paint thinner — and will likewise follow even the most completely implausible savior — in order to avoid “taking life straight.” Only by freeing oneself from such drugs and illusions can one set sail masterless on the trackless sea of meaningless existence and thus achieve the ultimate goal of human spiritual development: getting laid. Quell’s journey takes him through several sexual stages: from a masturbatory encounter with a sand-castle dream girl; to a sexless, subservient relationship with a “Dad” who seems to him to hold the key to sexual power; to a final acceptance of the loss of his real dream girl (now hilariously named Doris Day); and a courageous break with Dad that frees him at last to put his penis in the vaginas of real, live women he meets in bars. Um, huzzah.