The Master (2012) – Jay’s Analysis

The fractured, kaleidoscope poster portrays the fractured, disassociative nature of Freddie Quell's psyche.

By: Jay P.T. Anderson's The Master is great, primarily as an artistic presentation of a very dark subject: the manipulation of mind control.  Not mind control in the mass psyche which this blog focuses on generally, but in the localized cult setting.  Loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, The Master  is an in-depth display of the tactics and techniques of manipulation, brainwashing and mind control, as the Hubbard-esque Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plays the puppet strings with the fledgling cult.  Dodd's focus in the story is the base vagrant Freddie Quell, who stumbles upon a yacht rented by Dodd and finds temporary work.   Interestingly, Hubbard himself possessed a similar yacht for a time, particularly during the heyday of his mountebank activities. While most people have a vague idea of Scientology, the majority are unaware of Hubbard's occult activities prior to creating Scientology.  Hubbard was involved in Crowleyanism for several years and "graduated" from his period of occult tutelage.  In effect, this meant that Hubbard had mastered the tools of manipulation and human psychology.   Hoffman plays Dodd brilliantly as a charismatic con-man (essential for any cult leader).  In this regard, what is lucidly portrayed are actual mind control techniques used by cults. Principally, Dodd uses repetition of vague phrases, reaching into Quell's subconscious to find the weaknesses in his psyche, as well as traumatic incidents involving war experiences, an absent father and sexual sins.  After bringing up these traumatic incidents, Dodd quickly elicits warm-fuzzies by appealing to Quell's most pleasurable memories surrounding a youthful flame.  As the manipulation progresses, Quell is subject to a back and forth process of acceptance and rejection, where the individual is given a proxy family (the cult), and then fears exclusion and exile.   A pattern emerges, and the individual's will is subject to mandated meaningless, repetitious actions (often under sensory deprivation), with the goal of disorienting the psyche, and attaching it to the welcoming father and mother archetypes (Dodd and his wife, played by Amy Adams).  Quell's conditioning, termed in the film "processing," is eerily reminiscent of trauma-based mind control.  In fact, the film is really about Dodd learning to become a charismatic, slimy master of human manipulation.


The individual’s identity and meaning is thus bound up with the cult and its pseudo familiar structure.  The cult’s imagined dogma thus provides a narrative story and explanation for one’s life, as well as (in this case) a cosmic purpose.  All of the universe’s meaning and focus is channelled into the wild dreams of the creative and charismatic cult leader, leading to a prideful sense of galactic privilege.   The cult thus appeals to all of man’s base and higher desires, as Quell is manipulated by his baser desires, as well.   In a word, control is the name of the game, and the mind is treated as a computer that is rebooted and reprogrammed.

One thinks of Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising, particularly where “base programming” is mentioned in regard to food and sex and the social taboos that surround them.  While Wilson is wrong to think that all systems are systems of control and oppression, it is true that cults take those same basic structures and schemas and rewrites them.  In this regard, one can think of systems like Marxism, which replaces a totality mythos for the older religious and bourgeoisie narratives, or the national Germanic mythos of the Nazis.  Those who study systems and worldviews are able to notice the basic patterns and “imprinting” they all possess, the most important of which is their explanatory power, which gives its participants meaning and order.

The acting in the film is phenomenal: look for a Phoenix nomination for Best Actor.  The cinematography is amazing, shot for 70mm, which I was able to see, and recommend.  The visuals are amazing, and leave one precisely with the creepy, odd feeling the cult itself possesses.  The viewer feels they are being swept along as a cult member undergoing the psychological trauma and mind control Quell experiences.  The Master is a must-see for those interested in the topics on this blog.  My only criticism is that the film seems to lack purpose.  As Ebert noted, what exactly are we to take away from this?  The cult is certainly a cult, but eventually Freddie is broken down and accepts his role as a sheeple cult member.   See the below video for a great analysis of cult patterns.

7 Comments on The Master (2012) – Jay’s Analysis

  1. There totally is a purpose to this. who/what is your master?

  2. Philanthropy // October 1, 2012 at 8:40 am // Reply

    great analysis one again! I think the film leaves it up to the viewer to decide for themselves how they should feel about it instead of the director pushing his views.

    p.s could you do a analysis on the Looper film (2012) its got some high symbolism to decode and analyse here is one take on it:

  3. I agree that this fascinating film, like all great art, brings up so many interesting questions and no easy answers.

    Some questions I wrote down after seeing it:

    To what degree are we the “master” of ourselves? What are we trying to be the master of exactly? Do we have an essential nature? What’s the nature of this self we refer to – this mix of conscious and unconscious systems, this interplay between neo-cortex, limbic, and reptilian brains? Which part is us? What are the problems with trying to separate out different parts? What are the problems with addressing our being in terms of a simplistic binary – that there is a part of a person that is a master and there is part of us that should be enslaved? What are the problems with all those classic (overly simplistic?) dialectics: slave/master, id/ego, irrational/rational, body/soul, pre-determinism/freewill, etc.? What are the problems with trying to control ourselves, let alone trying to pinpoint a self to control? What are the problems with trying to control another’s self? Is changing someone’s behavior going to change their essence if there is an essence? When does education become enslavement, when does positive conditioning become brainwashing? What is the true goal of trying to control or change another? What are we trying to prove? That we are the master species? That we have complete freedom? That we’ve transcended our bodies? That we’ve conquered fate?

  4. I saw this analysis when it was written but i read it just now, after I watched the movie. I must say that I expected something else in this analysis. Actually, I expected ‘something else’ from movie too.

    Overall, I like the movie but I thought it will go deeper. Same thing I expected for this analysis. I guess I’m spoiled by other analysis’ I read here 🙂 Also, I can’t say there is something wrong in this analysis. But… I saw the movie the other way. Maybe it’s because I know nothing about Scientology. Ok, I know something since Tom Cruise and Jonh Travolta became targets of yellow(ish) newspapers.

    I wouldn’t describe relationship between The Master and Freddie just as manipulation. To me, this relationship is more like Father and Son. In some kind of Biblical sense. Something like we had in ‘Knowing’ but in more drastic way. The Master in the movie talks The Truth and I agree withe many things said. I’m not sure why the character of The Master is made so confused. Anyway, the purpose of relationship between The Master and Freddie is not just of manipulative nature. The Master is not trying to make ‘just another servant’ but trying to make a Human from a Fool. He actually succedes. At the end of a movie we see Freddie as a regular guy (more or less).

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