2012, 137 min. R – language, full frontal female nudity, sand sculpture rape, back-to-the-audience masturbation, wheeee….IMDB says... A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future - until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.
The 73rd Virgin says... I was predisposed to like this. Philip Seymour Hoffman and a script that roiled the Scientologist infested waters of Hollywood seemed like a sure thing. I wasn’t prepared for how unique Joaquin Phoenix would be as the actual lead, and Amy Adam's sweet malevolence is a nice surprise. All the acting is great.
And it’s a good thing too, because writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson throws down a hell of an audience challenge. We will watch 2 ¼ hours of intense conversation, something like therapy, quease inducing behavior, manic outbursts, but very little real action and an ambiguous conclusion.
Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a World War II Navy loser with shell shock and an onscreen obsession with genitalia. In a long introduction to the character, between drinks of whatever makeshift hooch he can find, distill or steal, we get to watch him hump and try to pleasure a sand sculpted woman that his Navy pals have built, then pleasure himself into the ocean, then identify 3 different Rorschach images as sex organs, then, back in civilian life, attack one of his department store customers, then accidentally poison an itinerant vegetable harvester, etc. A couple walked out of the theater around this time.
I admit at times it seems a little sloppy or brave according to taste. We get two close-up glimpses of the wartime Quell (helmet and cigarette) on the observation deck of a ship. Any other movie would give us a long backstory on what tragedy has caused his battle-rattle. Not here – it just dangles. All we eventually know is his dad is gone and his mom is committed somewhere. It could be he’s always been a crazy alcoholic loser. In his more tender moments with the sand sculpture, it appears he may have some “Mom” issues.
The Phoenix of “Walk the Line” is long gone. He is now fabulously skinny with hunched shoulders, a twitch, and a habit of talking out of one side of his scarred mouth. My wife rather insightfully thought of post-car wreck Montgomery Clift. Hadn’t occurred to me, but yep, sure enough.
Although he may primarily be an alcoholic, Quell is working up to sociopath. At rock bottom, he wanders by a brightly lit yacht that may have liquor to steal and decides to hop aboard. The next morning he meets the head tenant, Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, generally assumed to represent L. Ron Hubbard. A movement called “The Cause” will stand in for Scientology.
Hoffman is commanding in every movie in which he wants to be, but he is something to behold here. He begins “processing” on Quell. The process is kinda like therapy, kinda like hypnosis, but seriously in your face. Hoffman’s huge head, booming but soothing voice, and unblinking stare make him an ideal cult leader. From this point forward Hoffman and Amy Adams as his terrifying wife Peggy carry more of the movie.
The Cause as presented here seems to attract mainly middle-aged wealthy patrons and especially patronesses who are drawn to Dodd’s charisma and hypnotic parlor skills. In an inexplicable scene Dodd leads an entire party through endless verses of “I Will Go No More A-Roving” while doing a one man bawdy dance. Stranger yet, we are presented most of the scene through the drunken Quell’s eyes as he imagines all the women, including the piano player, to be nude. I guess it was necessary. I’m a little stumped as to why. Seems like the scene would have been just as effective without that, but maybe I’m just an old prig.
Aaaanyway, Peggy and the rest of the Dodd family think that Quell is “past helping” and should be expelled; that he is only in it for the money or power (pot meet kettle); but Dodd has an inexplicable perhaps homoerotic urge to care for Quell. Maybe because he's so awash in bullshit, the raging ball of Id that is Quell, with a bullshit detector set to infinity and attenuated with alcohol, is a link back to normal.
Eventually, Dodd will publish his “life’s work”, which it turns out is “The Split Saber” that I guess must be akin to Hubbard’s “Dianetics”. Quell will become something of an enforcer by beating up one party guest critic and also a former publisher of Dodd’s who dares to speak ill of the new book. But the irony is that really Quell’s just looking for a fight and these two serve the purpose of the moment. He will undergo the full process, but he only does it because he’s in Dodd’s thrall, not because of the Cause or its dogma. It wouldn’t occur to him to believe or disbelieve. He’s not that kind of man.
More revealingly, we see how Dodd deals with questions about his Cause’s dogma and practice through three similarly arcing scenes; at first benevolent and charismatic, then testy, then finally explosive when backed into a corner. Laura Dern is fantastic in a small role as a wealthy suburban benefactor who actually believes in all this crap. You can imagine her beaming smile, perfect hair and infectious enthusiasm in every pastor’s office in the world. However, she has detected a slight tangible shift in dogma, narrowed down to one word, between the early Cause and what is now in Dodd’s new book, and she is respectfully concerned. Dodd explodes.
At just the right moment Quell removes himself from the Cause and has one interaction with the extremely skittish mother of an old underage girlfriend. We’re chewing our nails to see if he will lash out at this innocent woman, but instead he shows the first sign of normal social skills we’ve seen. Quell remains a serial liar and a sociopath, but one who has found some strange comfort in being forced to confront his demons through processing, and one who has maybe found meaning in his relationship with this increasingly isolated and perhaps full-on crazy cult leader. Without revealing too much, Quell even appears to be able to bed a real woman, sans sand, but even that is ambiguous.
I loved it, but I’m not sure I can defend it. I was certainly never bored. Thought-provoking is a cop-out and a cliché, so call me copped-out and clichéd.
If this review seems unfocused and episodic, maybe I can blame the movie. Between negative web comments, a few people walking out of the theater, an overheard conversation in the restroom, Ebert’s 2 ½ star review, etc., I get the feeling there is some major disappointment out there that this isn’t really an indictment of Scientology, or religion, so much as a disturbing study of an almost unredeemable character (Quell) who is, God help us, slightly improved by all this bullshit, without ever believing a word of it. That is a dangerous point of view.
If you’ve been waiting ten years for Hoffman to finally get to turn all his knobs up to eleven – welcome home.
If you’re a disappointed art-house movie fan, well, now you know how I felt after “Like Water for Chocolate”.
The TV trailer was terrible and probably damaged turnout. Here’s the very good YouTube trailer.