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The Master Movie Review: 8 Interpretations of the Biggest Oscar Contender of the Year

Summer is the time for blockbusters and sequels, when big movie studios can reap the most from the box office. Like most of America I spent quite a few of my hot, humid summer weekends in the shelter of a movie theater, but it’s the fall movies that really get me excited, when action heroes give way to historical figures and CGI is hardly anywhere to be found. This shift marks the beginning of my favorite season of the year: not football season, not even election season in an election year, but awards season. Already I’ve begun obsessively tracking critical reactions and making Oscar predictions, and the first film to really generate huge buzz is Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

This is a movie that had taken the film festival circuit by storm, and was as popular as an art house movie can get (it was denied Venice’s highest honor, the Golden Lion, on the grounds that it had already won the top directing and acting awards). I knew after getting my first non-free Garden Theater ticket I would be seeing something great, even if I didn’t know what exactly it was going to be about. Ostensibly it was the story of a post-World War II veteran who can’t re-integrate back into society and instead forms a bond with the leader of a philosophical movement. And after leaving the theater and ruminating on it for three days, I still don’t really know what I saw.

No one seems to know what The Master is about. It is surely a character study, but one that has to be seen multiple times to come to a comfortable, if any, conclusion. I’m still in the process of figuring out a thesis from the given evidence, but here are eight of my many theories as to how this sure-to-be-Best-Picture-nominated movie was really meant to be interpreted: 

1. As a long music video for Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s AMAZING score:

Set to beautiful landscapes depicting everything from the frothing ocean to the Arizona desert to picturesque 50’s homes in Philadelphia, The Master truly belongs to Greenwood. After the critically-acclaimed score for his last collaboration with Anderson, There Will Be Blood, was snubbed by the Oscars, Greenwood sees this as an opportunity for redemption. Hans Zimmer better watch out.

2. As a prequel to I’m Still Here:

Remember when Joaquin Phoenix was doing crazy things like showing up to David Letterman’s talk show and refusing to answer questions, or claiming he was starting a career in rap music? And then it turned out it was all a hoax for Casey Affleck’s mockumentary I’m Still Here? Since Affleck still doesn’t have a career, he enlisted his buddy Phoenix to reprise his previous role as a psychotic loner, only this time it’s the origin story! Affleck hopes that after this movie wins a slew of awards, he can reveal himself as the actual writer-director of the work and he will finally become culturally relevant for something other than being Ben’s younger brother.

3. As a how-to guide to making moonshine:

Anderson’s actually just a big fan of the art. He wants to share his recipes. He loves hosting cocktail parties. He’s the Martha Stewart of Hollywood, people! But knowing no one would take him seriously otherwise, he had to interject some semblance of a plot into the sequences of magical-concoction-brewing. The key word here being semblance.

4. As a gay romance:

This is probably my strongest theory and the one most viewers of the film pick up on. Phoenix’s character Freddie Quell has been without love for so long. Philip Seymour Hoffman (what a chameleon of an actor, by the way) plays Lancaster Dodd, who has been in and out of marriages to many wives. At one point he even makes a speech about how to teach a marriage to play dead and roll over. When Quell, sad and lonely, stumbles on his ship, Dodd can’t believe his luck. He does everything to keep him close, claiming that Quell needs his help to be cured, when he is the one suffering from the “disease” of homosexuality. Amy Adams plays Peggy, Dodd’s wife, who jealously admits, “You seem to inspire something in him.” After meeting Quell, Dodd is able to write a second book, and even makes some changes that could jeopardize the entire movement. Throughout the film he refers to Phoenix as a “naughty boy,” reminds him that he is his only friend, and sings lullabies to him. Their hugs are intimate and a little too long, and at one point Dodd spanks Quell. The scene most crucial to understanding this viewpoint is when Peggy forcefully gives Dodd a hand job, lecturing him to get rid of poisonous thoughts. “I don’t care what you do,” she tells him, “as long as no one else knows.” Which brings me to my next interpretation.

5. The “Master” of the title actually refers to Dodd’s wife:

Behind every great man there is a great woman, so they say. Sure, Lancaster Dodd is respectfully called “master” wherever he goes, but it’s Peggy who controls the family and the cult-ish community surrounding them. In public she plays a docile, adoring wife, but in private moments we see her yelling at Dodd while he works, as well as physically punishing him. Only she is able to put a stop to Dodd and Quell’s mutual boozing. She is really the force behind the movement.

6. Freddie Quell is actually a messiah:

Quell has these overwhelming, realistic dreams, about his mother and his family and about Lancaster Dodd. He is constantly rejected by society, gets run out and chased over land and out to sea, and can literally turn water into wine (well, paint thinner into moonshine). He starts out as a disciple of Dodd’s but ends up impacting The Cause far more than any follower. In Quell, Dodd sees a way to be liberated. But his presence is ultimately too much and even the movement ends up rejecting him.

7. The Master is Paul Thomas Anderson’s first musical:

Featuring acts by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who sings a prominent solo of Dean Martin’s “On a Slow Boat to China”; a character who’s actually named after Doris Day, that great 50’s singer; and a jolly naked dance number! Take that, Glee!

8. Anderson is a modern Alfred Hitchcock: 

In the sense that his goal was to find as many ways as possible to torture his star Joaquin Phoenix while still calling it art and being heralded as a genius. In The Master, Phoenix gets slapped in the face, slaps himself violently, gets crushed in serious fights in various situations, is kept from blinking during interrogation while a vein in his forehead pulsates, and in one scene bounces around a courtroom going absolutely nuts (this scene never made it to the final cut, showing you how sadistic Anderson may actually be). Most memorably, Phoenix’s character is handcuffed and locked in a jail cell. He stomps on and completely smashes a toilet, throws himself against the bars, and bangs his head against the bunk bed several times, all in one take. Maybe it will be worth it if he wins that long-awaited Oscar?

In the end, it’s up to the viewer to decide what just happened in the last two and a half hours. Make of this movie what you will, but lazy audiences, beware. Only one thing is for certain: this movie isn’t actually the Scientology movie we were led to expect. Though with this summer’s TomKat divorce and surrounding drama, is it too early for Anderson to start drafting a sequel.

This article originally appeared in the Princeton University newspaper the Nassau Weekly

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