Reviewer: Scott Nehring
Should I see it?
Only if you're a film geek.
Writer/Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Jesse Plemons
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity and language
Watch or Rent This Movie Here
Paul Thomas Anderson is the best director of this generation. There is no one better at consistently pulling Oscar-winning performances from actors. I argue there is also no one better at visual themes and scene construction. He is the true heir to the great directors of previous generations.
This film carries all of the potency and power of Anderson’s previous work. The detailed beauty of the film is almost worth a recommendation. The same can be said of the great performances by his cast Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. He has put together an arresting film about a lost soul who is drawn into a fledgling cult. Unfortunately, Anderson has all of this brilliance but forgot to make it mean anything.
Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is a mentally disturbed World War II navy vet with a drinking problem. He becomes a department store photographer and in his spare time he concocts alcoholic brews from whatever he finds laying around, paint thinner, fuel, anything. Being a drunk, he ruins this gig and descends into picking cabbage with migrants. During this period, one of his concoctions poisons a fellow laborer and Quell is chased off. He becomes a stowaway on a yacht. Unbeknownst to Quell, the ship belongs to Writer, doctor, nuclear physicist , theoretical philosopher and “hopelessly inquisitive man”, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).
Dodd is a thinly veiled caricature of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Scientology cult. Dodd’s self-constructed theology is call The Cause. Its tenants are very similar to those of Scientology, including adherents being subjected to “processing”. Processing is a hypnotic interviewing technique where Dodd questions and badgers his subject while also playing control games with their minds. He makes Quell say his name repetitively until the words simply fizzle into meaningless words. He challenges Quell to discuss horrifying childhood trauma without blinking – every time he blinks they start over. The processing scenes between Dodd and Quell are captivating and unsettling.
Dodd quickly takes Quell under his protection and treats the desperate man as a fix-er-up hobby. Dodd constantly remarks that Quell acts like a beast and refers to him in the way a father would talk to an errant child. All the while Quell does as he is told and attempts to enjoy the ride. The pair becomes a duel between nature and nurture. Quell is the bitter truth of our nature rebelling against the elitist Dodd's attempt at nurturing him towards perfection.
Anderson lays out some great questions for him to answer, but fails to investigate them fully. This leads to a narrative without much force behind it. He has masterfully constructed scenes and performances but they do not lead to anything. This is unsatisfying and frankly confusing. Most audiences will not make it past the first hour of the film due to this lack of focus.
Another issue with the film is Anderson’s wandering style. He has no problem moving abruptly through a character’s life with little explanation. This is one of the hallmarks of his style that usually strangely works. Here he is too presumptuous. For example, Quell’s pre-Dodd life is given in a jerky, almost disconnected fashion. While this thematically represents how Quell lived, it is also very hard to grasp, in particular for unsophisticated audiences. There is an assumption by Anderson we will care, which is fair. At the beginning you can throw many things at an audience and they will go along because they assume you’re leading them to a specific place. Anderson fails to deliver on this promise early on. This shows an arrogance or some other kind of disconnect coming from Anderson which most audiences are not going to find the patience for.
In the end I cannot recommend this film. If you’re a film geek or have a love for Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous work, you will find much to adore. The average viewer will find this annoyingly disjointed and terribly slow.
Worldview: Quell has his worldview constructed for him by Dodd. Dodd’s metaphysical narrative is simple. We are transitory souls moving through time by passing from one body form to another (lives). Our true spiritual selves h.ave been corrupted and hidden by an external alien force. Man needs to deal with his past traumas from previous lives, perhaps spanning trillions of years into history, in order to elevate himself to his former perfection. I am not a student of Scientology, but I believe this is not far from their worldview. There are certainly elements there of the usual New age mindset.
Even while he subordinates himself under this man-made theology, Quell continues to speak of God when he curses. When he yells “Goddammit!” I found it striking because it exposes that he never denied the real living God even while living lie of The Cause. Deep in his soul, Quell still knew the truth. This was perhaps incidental to what Anderson was intending, but is there just the same.
Cautions: There is plenty of full frontal nudity, sexual activity, language and substance abuse. Quell is a drunk who is given to juvenile sexual trysts and isn't above molesting a mound of sand. Yes, I said sand.
Anderson has this reoccurring image of Quell fawning over the form of a naked women built out of sand on the beach. She’s a kind of sand sex goddess, I’m not entirely sure, it is all quite vague. In contrast to this perfected image that washes into the sea are the numerous real naked women who populate Dodd’s world. Throughout the movie we are presented with nude women. To Anderson’s credit they are real women with real bodies. He highlights all of their flab, stretch marks, rolls and sagging breasts.
In other words, this is not a film you want to watch with small children running around.
Another Paul Thomas Anderson film
There Will Be Blood (2007)