The Master (2012) Film Review: Reflecting on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Work

The Master: A Timeless Exploration of Human Search for Meaning

In this article, we explore the captivating film, “The Master,” which continues to resonate with audiences even a decade after its release. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the movie delves into the profound concept of humankind’s pursuit of purpose and the various “masters” they serve. Set in the aftermath of World War II, the story follows Navy man Freddie Quell, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, as he grapples with his identity, addiction, and the quest for meaning in a rapidly changing world.

A Reflection of the Post-War Turmoil

The opening minutes of “The Master” set the stage by portraying the struggles faced by military personnel trying to adapt to a world transformed by the war’s aftermath. Freddie Quell represents the countless individuals grappling with feelings of loss, confusion, and a desperate yearning for purpose. Throughout the film, we encounter several characters in similar states, searching anxiously for their own masters to guide them. A decade after its release, audiences confronted with their own world-changing events may find an even deeper connection with the film, relating to the characters’ emotional turmoil.

Masters and Desires

As the story unfolds, we witness the establishment of Quell’s primary master: sexual desire. Through his off-handed jokes among fellow veterans and provocative responses during a Rorschach test, his longing becomes evident. However, Quell’s life takes a significant turn when he encounters Lancaster Dodd, portrayed by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd is the charismatic leader of The Cause, an experimental religious movement, and Quell becomes a vital figure in their interconnected destinies. Dodd himself grapples with his own masters of status, acceptance, and power, mirroring the struggles faced by many influential figures throughout history.

The film consistently explores the desires and conflicts within these two complex characters. Dodd appears determined to fix Quell, using him as a project to prove something to himself. Meanwhile, Quell continues to surrender to his carnal instincts, perpetuating a cycle of unfulfilled desires. Through poignant scenes like the Processing sequence, where Quell answers personal questions, and Dodd’s moments of genuine empathy, we witness flickers of humanity in both characters. However, they often find themselves trapped by their own mistakes and the masters they cannot escape.

A Midway Point Revelation

One pivotal scene showcases the stagnant progression and inner workings of Quell and Dodd’s minds. In a house occupied by members of The Cause in Philadelphia, Dodd launches into a song, reveling in his perceived fame and adoration. Meanwhile, Quell’s mind wanders, imagining the women present as unclothed. This moment encapsulates the stagnation of their journeys and sheds light on their innermost desires and struggles.

The Timeless Relevance of “The Master”

“The Master” resonates with audiences even today due to its exploration of universal truths that transcend time. The film delves deep into our collective search for meaning and exposes those in positions of power who exploit those desperately yearning for purpose. Lancaster Dodd not only embodies the characteristics of a cult leader but also mirrors politicians who strive for approval while serving their own interests. The narrative cleverly showcases Dodd’s struggle to maintain his facade, growing increasingly exhausted and impatient when his ideas are challenged.

Another significant theme in the film is the danger of apathy, exemplified by Quell’s inability to break free from his oppressive master, leading to the loss of his beloved Doris. The movie’s final scenes, where Quell finds himself next to a sand sculpture of a nude woman after a moment of fleeting pleasure, evoke melancholy and pessimism rather than resolution.

Resonating with a Post-Pandemic Audience

The context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic further amplifies the film’s relevance. After enduring years of sickness, pain, and death, many individuals may find themselves echoing Freddie’s sense of isolation, desperately seeking masters who may ultimately destroy them. Parallels can undoubtedly be drawn between the heated exchanges depicted in the film and the way modern society quarrels online. The film raises the issue of substantive arguments being overshadowed by petty insults, as those in power belittle those beneath them while attempting to connect with them. This societal dynamic leaves individuals like Freddie searching for solace, putting their faith in flawed figures like Dodd.

During times of tremendous turmoil, such as war or a global health crisis, “The Master” reinforces the critical importance of finding the right master to serve. While the film does not provide an explicit answer to what that master might be, it sheds light on the ongoing universal struggle to discover purpose and belonging.


“The Master” endures as a psychologically gripping tale of the human quest for meaning. Its exploration of different masters and the complexities of desire resonates with audiences, offering profound reflections on the pursuit of purpose. The film’s timeless relevance is exemplified by its portrayal of characters trapped by their own desires and the turmoil they face in search of fulfillment. As we navigate through our own ever-changing world, “The Master” serves as a poignant reminder to question the masters we devote ourselves to and the profound impact they have on our lives.


1. Did “The Master” receive any awards or critical acclaim?

Yes, “The Master” garnered critical acclaim and received numerous awards and nominations. Joaquin Phoenix’s remarkable performance as Freddie Quell earned him multiple accolades, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

2. Is “The Master” based on real events or individuals?

While “The Master” draws inspiration from various cult leaders and historical contexts, it is ultimately a work of fiction. Paul Thomas Anderson skillfully weaves together elements from different sources to create a compelling narrative.

3. Can “The Master” be interpreted as a critique of religious movements?

The film does explore the dynamics of a fictional religious movement, but it does not explicitly criticize all religious movements as a whole. Instead, “The Master” delves into the complexities of belief systems and the influence of charismatic leaders.

4. How does “The Master” address themes of identity and self-discovery?

“The Master” delves deep into the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery, touching on themes of identity and personal agency. Through Freddie Quell’s experiences and interactions with Lancaster Dodd, the film examines the challenges one faces in defining their own identity amidst societal expectations.

5. What is the significance of the film’s title, “The Master”?

The title holds multiple interpretations within the context of the film. It refers to different masters individuals serve, whether it be personal desires, influential figures, or belief systems. “The Master” encapsulates the central theme of the film, exploring the various masters we devote ourselves to and their profound impact on our lives.