The protagonist of any Paul Thomas Anderson film is one who is at first, in conflict with himself, and later, in conflict with another. The transition of obstacles from within the mind or body to a force outside of one’s own dimensions is important because it helps Anderson’s narratives transmit the idea of a person being ‘a danger to society’. Everyone, from Dirk Diggler (Boogie Nights) to Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) were analyzed within their universes as destructive individuals, and their actions and wildfire effects on their surroundings was always a culmination of their own nature. The Master, thus, becomes a fascinating study of Anderson’s protagonists because in this film, for the first time, there are two of them.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix in a volcanic performance) and The Master (or Lancaster Dodd, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, reliably brilliant as ever) engage in a tug of war after their two universes collide aboard a ferry at night. The most staggering revelation arrived at through their coincidental, perhaps foreseen meeting (as Peggy Dodd, Amy Adams, suggests; “is it possible he just happened to come across us?”) is that both men’s influences work in opposing directions. The Master of course, is a man of philosophy, who has a vision of the world he preaches through a creepy, cult-like following known as “The Cause” (Anderson uses this as an allusion to L. Ron Hubbard and the practice of Scientology). His intentions are sincerely, if not with the conviction of a radical, constructive. He just wants to help people. Freddie however, despite being engrossed into The Master’s world, cannot contain his erratic, borderline insane, violent behavior. His intentions are that of destruction. Unlike in There Will Be Blood where Eli was simply considered a minor obstruction to Daniel Plainview’s magnanimous vision (or in broader context, religion is a minor obstruction to industry), in The Master, Dodd’s alternative faith and Quell’s Godless nihilism are given an equal hand.
As all Anderson films go however, the powers that be must always culminate in a final, definitive event, usually a revelation of sorts that gives an unwavering stand on the ways of nature… sometimes fantastical (frogs falling from the sky) other times definitively hellish (the ending of There Will Be Blood). It’s that finale however that gives the journey any importance, because all things must come to a conclusion, and as The Master has shown, even in the case of two equally fairing, equally powerful protagonists, one side has to give.