The latest from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is a beguiling trip through post-WWII America. It’s also one of the more difficult films to characterize. There are, of course, basic elements that can easily be discussed: plot, acting, photography. Then there is the construction and the ultimate intent of the picture which is elusive due to the anthropological nature of the story. Even attempting to explain what makes it difficult to explain is problematic. That said, and pleasantly perplexing feelings aside, the film is clearly a brilliant and major achievement on many levels.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell. Freddie is a Navy veteran struggling to assimilate to civilian life. Although, it doesn’t seem like he fit in before the war either. He bounces from job to job. He consumes alcohol constantly and appears to live on the precipice of a nervous breakdown and/or violent outburst. Joaquin plays him with a lumbering stride, a contorted mug, and mad eyes filled with infinite sadness. He’s a lost puppy, and you’re unsure whether or not he’ll bite. Joaquin is astonishing in the role. It’s impossible to know where Freddie begins and Joaquin ends. He more than disappears, he transcends. I don’t say this lightly or often, but the performance belongs right up there with the best from Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s just that fucking good.
Freddie stumbles across Lancaster Dodd and the film’s central relationship takes shape. Dodd, played by the impressive Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a renaissance man starting his own religious group, “The Cause,” which has similarities to Scientology. Dodd decides to use Freddie as a case study and personal moonshine supplier and Freddie obliges. Eventually Freddie becomes a protégé and enforcer for “The Cause.” The film then becomes a tug-of-war for Freddie’s soul while Lancaster continues to hone his methods.
One of Dodd’s techniques is “informal processing”. It’s a simple enough Q&A session that works almost like hypnosis. The back and forth between Lancaster and Freddie during his session is as good as cinema gets. It’s just two amazing actors talking in one small room and it could not be more riveting.
Like There Will Be Blood and Punch-Drunk Love, the sights and sounds are meant to be outward projections of the main characters inner psyche. It is manifest in a flowing, dream-like presentation that also maintains Anderson’s focused and exacting style. This also entails a cacophonous sound design and a similarly inharmonious and brilliant score from Jonny Greenwood. The camera however is never handheld or shaky. The shots are crisp and beautifully composed with a lot of emphasis on depth of field. These elements can seem at odds with each other but such is the point with two looming and combustible main characters.
It’s not clear if Lancaster believes his bullshit or not. The outside world only intervenes in a few scenes leaving the audience as isolated as the characters. As Lancaster’s wife Peggy, Amy Adams has a few key scenes and behavioral shifts that offer some clues. But the movie is not really goal oriented. Instead, it dives into the deep end of human behavior, sexuality, and dissatisfaction. What will we believe to feel whole? Who will we follow? And why does it matter?
Paul Thomas Anderson borrows a few shots and ideas from his various influences, as well as his own filmography, and he still managed to craft a staggeringly original piece of cinema. It’s not easily explained, but it’s not easily forgotten either.
(I’ve discussed it before, but it should be noted. The film was shot on 65mm film stock, a true rarity, and is being projected a few places in 70mm. I was lucky enough to see it this way and I cannot recommend this experience enough. Truly stunning visuals.)