THE BLOG
10/17/2012 05:53 pm ET Updated Dec 17, 2012

The Master and the Slow Boat to China (With Spoilers)

It's been over a month since Paul Thomas Anderson's film The Master was released in the U.S. During that time, I saw the film twice (both times in 70mm) and I still find myself thinking about it -- haunted by it may be a better term. You can see my review of The Master here, but since I try to be very careful to avoid spoilers, I didn't share some of my thoughts about the film, including what I think the film might actually be about (other than my belief that it really isn't about Scientology). And over the past few weeks, as I've thought about The Master more and talked about it with friends who've seen it, I've been able to nail down more of my feelings about it, particularly the film's ending. So I thought I'd share them.

Needless to say, this post is going to have a lot of spoilers in it, but I think it's impossible to talk about a movie like The Master in any other way. And the fact that The Master is a movie that fosters (or, more accurately, demands) discussion is a testament to what a challenging, unique film it is.

In any case, SPOILER ALERT. You've been warned.

"Slow Boat to China"

The first time I saw The Master, I was pretty confused by the scene near the end when Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) meet for the last time in England and Dodd belts out the song "Slow Boat to China." But after seeing it the second time, I came away with a much different understanding of it.

While many see Lancaster as simply a huckster, by the end of the film it seems that Lancaster himself has become a prisoner of the Cause or, more accurately, his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) who seems to be the one really calling the shots. When Freddie and Lancaster meet for the last time, Lancaster is in a giant, largely empty room that serves as his office but looks a bit like a chapel, making him seem quite grand (as chapels and cathedrals are meant to) but also showing how isolated he is. Except, of course, for Peggy, who's sitting quietly in the shadows keeping a watchful eye over everything Lancaster does.

I think Lancaster has a genuine love for Freddie. Freddie is the devoted son Lancaster never had -- Lancaster's son, Val (Jesse Plemons), is the only member of the Cause's inner circle to say that Lancaster is just making it all up. Lancaster also sees Freddie as a deeply troubled person who needs help, yet Lancaster's inability to provide it underscores not just the failures of the Cause as a belief system and a way to make people better, but also Lancaster's failure as a father to help his adoptive son. But more than that, I think Lancaster really likes Freddie as a person. He likes and is envious of Freddie's wildness, his uninhibited emotions, and his freedom to come, go, and do as he pleases. These are all things Lancaster is not permitted to be, both as leader of the Cause or by Peggy, who forcefully keeps his sexual urges in check.

When Lancaster sings "Slow Boat to China" to Freddie, what I think is actually happening is that Lancaster is sincerely telling Freddie how he feels but masked in a song, since he can't explicitly say how he feels. Here are the lyrics:

I'd love to get you on a slow boat to China,
All to myself, alone.
Get you and keep you in my arms evermore,
Leave all your lovers weeping on the far away shore.
Out on the briny with a moon big and shiny
Melting your heart of stone.
I'd love to get you on a slow boat to China,
All to myself, alone.

The song is obviously written from a romantic perspective, but I think Lancaster means it honestly. What he really wants is to leave behind his controlling wife and the responsibility of being the founder and figurehead of this pseudo-religion (which he himself seems to be questioning) and go off with Freddie so they can drink Freddie's crazy concoctions and be wild and free, but also to have time to really dig deep into what is causing Freddie so much pain in his "heart of stone." To really spend time together as friends, father and son, as well as therapist and patient. The lyrics also recall the first time Freddie and Lancaster met on the boat for the wedding of Lancaster's daughter, where we not only saw Lancaster at his happiest but also at his most effective. Mere minutes into their first conversation, Freddie's first "processing" session reveals details from Freddie's troubled past that may very well be at the heart of his current troubles. It's Freddie's willingness to expose such intimate details to a virtual stranger that causes Lancaster to call Freddie, "The bravest boy I've ever met."

Many have said that they don't get what The Master is about, as if the film is supposed to impart a sweeping statement about Scientology, cults, charlatans offering quick fixes or the human condition. But for me, The Master is about these two specific men who see something in each other that they wish they had for themselves but are ultimately unwilling or unable to get. Lancaster wants a loving son and to be wild, fun, angry, free and sexual, but he can't because of his wife and his role in the Cause. Freddie wants family, intimacy, acceptance, answers and peace, but is too unstable or is given the wrong methods to achieve them. And while many want The Master to be an assault on what they see as a kooky and possibly dangerous cult, I'm not convinced that The Master, at its heart, is or has to be about more than its two main characters struggling and ultimately failing to make themselves whole.

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