Big Fishes Are Harder to Fry: Why “The Master” Is Only Two-Thirds of a Great Movie


“I swear to God, I didn’t see The Master as a father-son story. But there it is.”
~Paul Thomas Anderson

Having got to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, and been asked for comments on it, I’m going to give it the quick once over with my old movie critic’s eye. Obviously, the subject matter (a thinly-veiled dramatic portrait of L. Ron Hubbard and the early years of Scientology) is compelling, especially since I’m finishing off a book about my own brush with cult mentality. So here are my thoughts on the movie in brief.

The writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has done five movies previously: Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There will Be Blood. Two of these movies are pretty terrific (Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love), and one of them is a near-masterpiece (Magnolia). Hard Eight was a strong debut, but Anderson’s last before The Master, There Will Be Blood, was I thought overall a very poor work, despite receiving a huge amount of praise from critics. (Here’s my reasons why.)

The Master isn’t a masterpiece and it’s not really terrific either; but it’s not a total shambles either. After watching it, I came away with the clear sense that Anderson was less interested in exploring the inner workings of Scientology, or of cult mentality in general, than he was in shaping a profound and personal character study with mythic dimensions (as he attempted with Blood). But as with Blood, though not to the same degree, he failed to develop his characters enough to fill out and drive the story, or to carry the deeper abstract meanings which he wanted to communicate, his “mythic narrative.” The result, like Blood (though again not so critically), is that the film’s storyline and its characters don’t quite seem to meet. The film lacks the symbiotic flow of all good narratives, in which characters direct story and story shapes and brings out characters. As a result the movie, despite some brilliant scenes, never quite finds its momentum.

Anderson’s mythic narrative has to be guessed at, but it seems to have something to do with the sand mermaid at the film’s start and with the opening two images of the ocean (femininity) and of Freddie’s (Joaquin’s Phoenix) helmet poking up over a sandbag, which is probably meant as a phallic symbol. In a subsequent scene, Freddie is given a Rorschach test and answers each time either by citing “pussy” or “cock.” His sexually obsessive nature has already been spelled out in the first couple of scenes, when he mounts the sand mermaid and then masturbates into the ocean. The masturbatory scene is echoed later when Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is masturbated by his wife, as a grisly kind of psychological conditioning, ostensibly to get him to quit alcohol. The film implies throughout that Dodd is dominated and controlled by his wife, and that she is the real force behind “The Cause.” In one scene, she is even seen dictating to him while he writes, material that presumably goes into one of his early books. Anderson has these Freudian and Jungian themes and images running through his movie, but they aren’t especially well-shaped or brought sufficiently to the surface to deepen the dramatic tension between characters. It’s not so much that they seem like an afterthought as the reverse: it’s as though he is more interested in abstract themes, and considers story and character to be subservient to them. This is only a guess however, since these themes are never allowed to show themselves fully.


Freddie’s sexual addiction goes hand in hand with his alcoholism, a weakness shared by Dobbs and which bonds them together at the start of their relationship (when Dodd has Freddie make hooch for him). Scientology partially established its reputation by claiming to cure alcoholism, so this may be intended as an ironic commentary. All substance addictions (if we include sex, which produces hormones that can be addictive) have to do with a desire to lose oneself, to immerse oneself in blissful, oceanic otherness, whether the otherness of a lover or a drug. The original blissful immersion is with the mother and the all-nurturing, all-comforting womb. Perhaps this is implied by the way Dodd, for all his apparent mastery, is actually mastered by his wife, i.e., is still in thrall to (immersed in) his mother’s psyche. These are all compelling readings of the film (for me at least), but since they only occurred to me while writing this piece, they perhaps shouldn’t be seen as intrinsic to the film’s meaning, especially since they aren’t ever fully developed.

The main problem with The Master is that it lacks a third act. The reason it lacks a third act I think has to do with the fact that the relationship between Freddie and Dodd, the film’s main element, is insufficiently developed. I presume that what Anderson is shooting for is a father-son story. If we allow this to be the overriding theme of the movie, that naturally incorporates all the other ones too. The major tension between a father and son is competition for the mother-wife’s attention, and Dodd’s wife is shown to be the hidden “master” of the film’s title. But Anderson seems to have deliberately undermined his theme by casting Phoenix in the son role. Freddie has been written as a much younger man; he is shown as being in love with a sixteen year-old before going off to the Navy, seven years earlier. So by this logic, Freddie must be in his mid-twenties, where Dobbs is probably in his fifties. Joaquin Phoenix is just shy of forty and looks older.[1] Because of this, the two men are more like unequal brothers than father and son; more critically still, they don’t ever seem to be rivals, for Dodd’s wife or anything else. We are never shown what draws the two men together, or what creates such an intense and passionate bond between them. (Or even exactly what Dodd sees in Freddie that no one else does.) The core of the movie, where all the psychological tension, conflict, passion, and meaning should be found, is mysteriously empty.

There are three levels (at least) to a great movie (and probably to any work of art): there’s the story, the underlying mythic narrative, and then, sandwiched between text and subtext, making the whole thing cohere and giving it flavor, there’s the psychology of the characters. Movies like Taxi Driver, The Godfather, Blue Velvet, or The Wild Bunch possess supreme coherence. There’s no sense of the three layers existing separate from each other: it’s a sandwich and you don’t pick it apart to see what’s in it, you just eat it (and let it consume you). The Master is not only missing a third act, it’s missing that central cohesive material that fills out the sandwich. It’s two-thirds of a great movie, which makes it less satisfying than even a really good movie. (For example, Killing Them Softly is a much less ambitious work than The Master, but it’s all the more satisfying because of it.)

Based on his last two films, I suspect Paul Thomas Anderson is falling prey to the Kubrick Syndrome. The Kubrick Syndrome is an often fatal disorder which happens when directors become consumed by their own desire for greatness and start to lose sight of the ordinary, everyday details—the nuance—that enrich a story and make it compelling, not only at a mythic level but at a more intimate, mundane one too.[2] The Master lacks nuance and intimacy and as a result feels claustrophobic, stuffy, impersonal. It’s missing a narrative arc or a satisfying climax because Anderson hasn’t brought his characters sufficiently to life for them to tell him how the story should end (or, put differently: so he can tell his own story through them). Maybe it has to do with Anderson’s own relationship with his father. Perhaps he felt drawn to explore the subject but, when it was time to go all the way in there, he shied away? We can only speculate. But considering the courage and audacity which Anderson must have summoned to tackle his subject at all, the movie feels timid. It shows us the torrid surfaces of the ocean, but it never drags us into the depths.[3]

For the last chunk of the film, Freddie wanders aimlessly about until Dobbs lures him back for a final showdown, only to tell him that he’s not welcome there anyway. Did Dodd feel rejected by Freddie and bring him back  to reject him, to ease his own sense of impotence? Was it Dodd’s way of regaining a feeling of dominance, of reassuring himself that he was still Freddie’s “master”? That would be in keeping with the father-son theme, and it’s implied, even stated outright, by the final dialogue between the two men. Dodd challenges Freddie to exist without a master, saying he will be the first person who ever lived to do so. He tells Freddie (rather petulantly) that, if they do meet in another life, he, Dodd, will be Freddie’s sworn enemy. This is father and son stuff, but since that Oedipal tension hasn’t been properly developed between the two men, it never comes to an emotional climax, only an intellectual one. The final showdown seems flat,  shapeless, and inert.

Anderson had a compelling enough story, and a plenty ambitious enough undertaking, to keep him busy without straining after subtext. If he had simply stuck to exploring the makings of a world-wide cult, and if he’d trusted his subject matter instead of trying to deepen it and mythologize it, the psychology and narrative drive would have naturally grown out of it. Like Kubrick, Anderson may not be satisfied to be a “mere” storyteller. He seems to be after bigger fish, even if they are the fishes of his own mind.

This one got away.


[1] As an interesting side-note, Phoenix was raised inside a cult, the Children of God. He also enacted a major meltdown recently before “revealing” it to be a publicity stunt; I have my doubts about that being the full explanation, however.

[2] As a Guardian interview with Anderson points out, “there’s not a whole lot of difference between a film-maker and a cult leader. Anderson chuckles. ‘I thought of that. There are absolute similarities, in that you have to convince a gang of people to follow your madness around for months or years at a time. It occurred to me multiple times and it’s a way of finding compassion for Lancaster Dodd. Wait a minute: how much crazier is he than me? It’s fucking nuts. There I am writing the material and saying I want to cast it and I’m not sure where it’s going, but who cares? Let’s go everyone!’

[3] “Anderson was raised as part of a large family (three siblings, four half-siblings) in the San Fernando Valley. He was forced to scrap for his space; carve out his territory. As a child, he recalls, he would tell his parents he was a film-maker, even before he had picked up a camera. In the meantime his father, Ernie, read the links on network TV and had a brief gig as ‘the ghost-host Ghoulardi,’ a costumed presenter who introduced the horror flicks on a local station. ‘I think he really wanted to be an actor but he never got the breaks,’ Anderson says. ‘He was really good at doing voiceovers; he was like the best at it. But that was something that always nagged at him. I wish he’d stuck around long enough to see some of my films. He died before Boogie Nights, he didn’t get to see the rest of them.’ He shrugs. ‘It’s a drag.’ Yes, I say, but he keeps cropping up in different guises. It has been noted that Anderson’s films are positively peppered with flawed, questing father figures, whether it be Burt Reynolds’s porn producer in Boogie Nights, Jason Robards’s dying patriarch in Magnolia or Day-Lewis’s raging oilman (‘I’ve abandoned my boy!’) in There Will Be Blood. Now here he is again, rearing up in the garb of a cuddly demagogue in 1950s America. ‘I know,’ says Anderson. ‘I know. And it’s a bummer. I swear to God, I didn’t see The Master as a father-son story. But there it is, so what are you going to do? It just goes to show you can’t stop what’s coming.'”

8 thoughts on “Big Fishes Are Harder to Fry: Why “The Master” Is Only Two-Thirds of a Great Movie

  1. Yawn. Imitate or plagiarize the greats; indulge in your craft (porn obsession/daddy problems); throw in some psychoanalysis symbolism & myths and you have a successful movie.

    Boogie Nights (Laughable character development) I agree its a guilty pleasure, but come on) – directed by Martin Scorsese
    There Will Be Blood – Barry Lyndon
    Hard Eight – Directed by QT
    Magnolia – Robert Atlman

  2. For the last chunk of the film, Freddie wanders aimlessly about until Dobbs lures him back for a final showdown, only to tell him that he’s not welcome there anyway. Did Dodd feel rejected by Freddie and bring him back to reject him, to ease his own sense of impotence? Was it Dodd’s way of regaining a feeling of dominance, of reassuring himself that he was still Freddie’s “master”?

    That’s a keen observation.

    But what’s the point of unraveling symbolism that we already know from reading from the Freud and Jung for ourselves—then crediting the director; or tapping yourself on the back for being so intellectual. What is really learned? I would appreciate a little quick feed back on this if you have the time.

  3. Feedback about what? Read your three questions back out loud and ask yourself – do they really invite a dialogue?

    If a dialogue is what you want, try rephrasing them to communicate that.

  4. I’m sorry for the inconvenience I may have caused you. My incoherent post was mainly due to my opinion of PTA’s fraudulent filmography. I was trying poke out a response from you as to why you think hes such a terrific filmmaker.

    The questions were aiming at abstract symbolism—what’s the point of unraveling them & what does one actually learn from them after they have been deciphered; a criticism to the on-going Kubrick fanatics. But as I read this review for the third time you made the importance distinguishes of what makes a great myth narrative: psychology & nuance.

  5. No inconvenience, I just wasn’t sure what you were getting at with your questions.

    I write movie reviews as a movie lover first, as a critic second. Besides praising movies I love, especially when under-appreciated (eg Assassination of Jesse James), I am drawn to analyzing movies that don’t quite succeed despite having great potential, as I think it’s a way to learn about the art form and about creative work in general. For example, I had never thought of movies as sandwiches before writing this article. The model evolved out of the process of verbalizing what I found disappointing about PTA’s film.

    I’d say PTA is a filmmaker worth watching because he is at least trying to explore new areas. I don’t think he’s overly derivative (the way Tarantino is, IMO), & at least in the first phase of his career I think he was genuinely driven by love of story, character, and the film medium. (I noticed you didn’t put Punch Drunk Love on your list of derivations – what did you think of that one?)

  6. I honestly enjoyed this film. I totally agree with what you say about it not having a confluence where all of it explodes. Still, it seems that is a manuscript with a lot of room to add context by the viewer. It can be ridiculed, admired, debated, etc.

    I think the underlining subject in this film is a man’s way of doing with sense, with meaning. We have masculinity in both men and women, and feminity also, in both, men and women – maybe annulling it. A lot of introjection happens in this movie, revealing the interchangeable roles of sexuality in man and woman (active/passive.) Its a very Oedipic movie, which, at the end, can be summed in a man’s hardship of reconciling duality, making more tolerable the breach between past and future.

    Its seems to me as a fight for sense. To find a mirror to adjust ourselves.

    Congratulations of all your posts, good stuff.


    • I agree there were some very compelling undercurrents and themes to the movie; I just wish they’d be brought out better and incorporated into the narrative, giving the film more emotional tension and excitement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s