It's fascinating to look back at the first screening of The Master and see how many critics were obsessed with decoding it. Part of this may be due to the preparation for the feature release, which included lots of discussion and debate about the possibility that The Master would focus on the early days of Scientology. With this hot-button issue potentially on the margins of this motion picture, critics and viewers alike wanted to erase the layers of The Master.
When Quell Met Dodd
The Master is more apparent a decade later, not because of its often-confounding ambiguity, but because of it. Quell, a retired Navyman who is now searching for meaning, stumbles upon Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a leader in a religious organization dubbed The Cause. Dodd believes he can alleviate Quell's mental illness without causing him to be resentful.
A Shapeless Plot
The Master's plot isn't a series of dramatic surprises or shocking revelations; it's a motion picture that's intentionally often shapeless. This serves as a reflection of Quell's everyday life after World War II and how Dodd, to quote his son, is making everything up as he goes along. Both are constantly improving their public personas, yet neither are averse to achieving anything.
The Masters' deliberately aimless narrative tends to encourage people to either dismiss it as uninteresting or dismiss it as much more complicated than it may appear. Anderson's genius, though, is in making a film that is elegantly simple as an extension of how The Cause is not as significant as they may appear. He is not a Messiah figure. He is a flesh-and-blood human who is often at the mercy of his wife (Amy Adams) as often as he is with the unpredictable future.
This is not to re-label The Master's more subtle details, or to suggest that Anderson could never have had greater goals for this narrative, or even that people may have differing views for its various subplots, or both. The Masters' vagueness can mean anything and everything simultaneously, not a defect of lazy screenwriting.
The Characters Are Just As Aimless
The Masters' ambiguity allows it to take on so many forms to so many people, including as a result of Quell and Dodd's inability to find answers. Why should the film they inhabit be any different?
The Master's intentionally shapeless narrative and its intention to portray how its main characters are so hidden are riddled with ambiguity. Did Dodd poison the man early in the movie theater who drank his moonshine? Is The Cause a valid statement, or is It just superstitious jumbo-jumbo? The Master is a moving book that invites you to contemplate, rather than serving you easy-described answers on a silver platter.
Because The Master is a film about uncertainty, people struggled to decipher what it is like to be a human like Quell, who simply bobs from one place to the next like a stream, making it an unforgettable and captivating experience, although it does not offer a concrete stance on, say, Scientology.
Reflecting Real Life
The Master's inability to grasp its unique plot structure or questions has only strengthened the idea that there are little concrete answers waiting to be discovered. Not only that, but the rise in prominence of people like Donald Trump or Joe Rogan shows how humans are always attracted to those who ascribe their lives to people like Lancaster Dodd.
What The Master's next decade of assessments, interpretations, and breakdowns will bring is shockingly unclear. What is evident, though, is that The Master's dedication to ambiguity, despite its controversies in 2012, made it more relevant to its characters and to the world we inhabit. The Master's purpose isn't the answer, it's what you bring to the table, not to mention the visuals and atmosphere created by its unique creative aspirations.