Paul Thomas Anderson's new film is a fascinating character study that is wonderfully acted and beautifully shot, and remains compelling right up until the end, even as you are left without fully understanding what it was you just saw. Phoenix is a wastrel wild man who ends up under the control of Hoffman as the leader of a Scientology-esque movement.
I have not been a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, finding them overlong and overly pretentious, but this one was getting described as very slow and talky, and most critics were coming out saying they're not sure what it was about, but it sure was interesting, and that intrigued me. And it turns out to be quite compelling, and wonderfully acted, and beautifully composed, even if you make it to the end having no clear idea what you just saw. And by the way, if anyone claims to have a solid sense of what's going on here, especially after just one viewing, don't believe them.
We open with a bunch of guys during World War II, Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell among them. Homoeroticism is front and center as they wrestle without shirts, one guy masturbates openly, and they build a busty woman out of the sand, which Quell gets on and humps in front of everyone. Freddie then lays down to sleep with his arm around the sand woman. He is discharged and diagnosed with PTSD, and we see that he has a habit of drinking chemicals to get high. He finds work as a portrait photographer in a department store, drinks developing fluid, and is soon fired for assaulting a customer. He ships off to pick cabbage, where he gives his concoction to an older fellow whom he says "looks like my father," who later dies. Freddie runs away, and hops aboard a ship, where he is discovered and led to Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd. It is now 1950.
Dodd has drunk Freddie's concoction, and loved it. Freddie says it's okay so long as you "know how to drink it." Freddie is allowed to stay, and starts to pick up that everyone aboard is practicing this method of self-knowledge called The Cause, which was created by Dodd, where they explore old memories and what they believe are past lives. Soon Dodd is focusing on Freddie as a test case, a lost soul he can train from a state of feral mindlessness, and he says "You will be my guinea pig and protege." Freddie is taken back to a memory of a sixteen-year-old girl he loved and left behind to go to war, telling her that he'd be back. After excavating his painful memories, Dodd tells Freddie that he is impressed with his bravery.
Freddie gets drawn into the movement. He meets Dodd's wife, Amy Adams as Peggy. When a man questions Dodd's beliefs at a party, Freddie throws a tomato at him, and later beats him up. In here there is an important bit where Peggy goes into the bathroom and jerks Dodd off. She is often pregnant, but this invites us to imagine that Dodd may not have, or be capable of, a normal sex life.
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Freddie watches Dodd sing a bawdy song at a party, and we see his vision of Dodd dancing around a number of nude women. There are many shots of Freddie gazing rapt at Dodd. Then, nice surprise, Laura Dern shows up as a wealthy woman hosting Dodd and his party. Dodd is arrested for bilking a woman like her, a former believer who began to feel that Dodd is just a charlatan, and Freddie gets arrested for beating up the arresting cops. When Dodd is released, everyone around him tries to turn him against Freddie, but he remains faithful. When Freddie comes home, he and Dodd playfully wrestle on the ground, recalling the homoerotic wrestling that opened the film. Dodd now starts hardcore training on Freddie. Dodd's son tells Freddie "Don't you see? He's making it up as he goes along."
Finally Dodd comes out with a second book. A longtime adherent says it could be boiled down to a three-page pamphlet. Dern tries to ask Dodd about a key change in his beliefs, but he explodes whenever questioned. On a dry lake bed, Dodd tells Freddie to ride a motorcycle as fast as he can toward his goal. Freddie doesn't come back. He goes to see the sixteen-year-old girl he left [i.e. his goal], and finds that she is gone and married someone else. He drifts for a while, then is found by Dodd, who has now set up shop in England--the implication being that his system was no longer floating in the states. Dodd calls Freddie to return to him.
Freddie goes to England, and meets Dodd and Peggy, who is none too pleased to see him. Dodd tells him he is welcome to stay for free, but if he leaves again, he can never come back. If Freddie goes off "to serve no master," when they meet again in the next life, they will be sworn enemies. Then Dodd sings "I'd like to get you on a slow boat to China, all by yourself, alone." There's a scene of Freddie having sex with one of the Cause's woman, having her go through some of the Cause's exercises, possibly as a joke, and tells her he admires her bravery, just as Dodd told him earlier. The final shot is off Freddie lying back on that beach, next to the sand woman, her breasts prominently in view.
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As you're watching it, you're not bored, the whole thing remains quite compelling, and you're aware that the performances are uniformly good. Hoffman is good, but Phoenix has the much showier role, and he throws himself into it with abandon. The compositions are also impeccable, beautiful to look at without being show-offy. And once it's over you know it was very good, and compelling right to the end, even as you start asking your friends "So what was that ABOUT?"
So here are my incomplete thoughts as to what's going on here: We know that Freddie is a rather ill-formed person. He's very much about instant gratification--he can't even wait to go buy some liquor, which is readily available, he has to drink whatever is around at the time. His only love was a sixteen year old girl. He had very few friends and was considered asocial. Dodd is the leader of this group that claims to be able to help people assert control over themselves. Freddie says his concoctions are "too much" for most men, who don't know how to drink it. Dodd can drink it, and enjoy it, and ask for more. We know that Dodd has a somewhat incomplete sex life with his wife, which largely consists of her masturbating him. And we know that Freddie yearns after misty, distant, fantasy images of affection, like the sand woman with the big breasts (which any Freudian would tell you stands in for his mother's breast, and since this makes up the last shot of the film...) and his long-lost sixteen-year-old love, who he somehow thinks will still be there, waiting for him.
So I think we have a case of crossed affections. Two incomplete people who THINK they see answers in the other, but are wrong. I think Dodd has a sort of Women In Love-esque yearning for a separate, affectionate but asexual love with Freddie, who he sees as sort of a wild man and is often referred to as an animal. And Freddie often uses his animal nature to prove loyalty and affection to Dodd, like beating others up for him. But Freddie can't be tamed, there's pressure from those around Dodd (his wife, for instance), to let go of his fantasy about Freddie, and which is why Dodd's final wish in the film is to get Freddie "all to myself, alone."
Freddie, I think, is more of a simpleton than we, or anyone else in the film knows. He may be one of those simple people who suggest depths of feeling and intellect, and other project such depths onto them because they believe such people CAN'T really be that simple, but it might just be that what seems like depth is really just empty space. In this way I think that Freddie may be a Flannery O'Connor-esque Enoch Emery type, who is exactly as I described: a simpleton who you just can't believe could really be THAT simple. I think Freddie is just that simple, but others ascribe great depth of feeling to him--namely, Dodd.
Then in the end, the whole thing is a case of crossed yearnings, Dodd seeking a worshipful disciple with a hint of homosexual affection, a wild man he thinks he can tame and "master," and Freddie seeking a father figure who can take his intensity and somehow make sense of it all and tell him what to do.
Regardless, the film is fascinating right up til the end, even if you're not quite sure what it's all about, it looks gorgeous and the performances are wonderful. You should go see it.