Much has been written about the meanings and intentions of Paul Thomas Anderson’s artfully enigmatic The Master. Upon its September 2012 release, the movie was largely perceived as being inspired by — if not directly based on — the life, teachings, and practices of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Anderson admitted as much, and the similarities were so precise and abundant that a number of the faith’s followers were upset (namely, Tom Cruise).
Over the last decade, other theories have cropped up, including its real meaning being related to acting, latent homosexuality, male loneliness, post-war weariness, and — like Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club — father-son bonds, “ master-disciple dynamics,” and the id vs. superego. Of course, none of these readings are mutually exclusive; in fact, they’re all valid and interconnected to some degree.
So, too, is the fact that The Master serves as a prophetic glimpse into the irrational and hazardous nature of present-day American ideological tribalism. While it’s easy — and, honestly, inevitable — to focus on Trumpism and its associated right wing beliefs/actions, many of the same associations (self-righteousness, unflagging conformity, identity politics, negativity toward “the Other,” etc.) are often found within militant leftism as well. Thus, The Master’s representations pertain to anyone and everyone who subscribes to such extreme and exclusory sociopolitical polarization.
It’s important to begin by dissecting the film’s two main figures, starting with Joaquin Phoenix’s socially awkward and psychologically damaged WWII veteran, Freddie Quell. Like countless real soldiers, he feels purposeless and misplaced upon reentering society because he’s unsatisfied with his profession and relationships, among other things.
Returning home to learn that his girlfriend, Doris, got married while he was away, Quell’s frustration, loneliness, and resentfulness toward those around him — such as a customer who commissions Quell to photograph him for his wife — turns Quell into what Phoenix deemed “just a dog, just a monkey who is ruled by instinct or impulse.”