“Leave your problems, they’ll still be there when you return.”
This is such a great film, is the first thought that comes to mind when I think of director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie. I also think about what a tough movie this is to write about. So much like the movie, forgive me if this review is all over the place. I feel it’s very appropriate so let’s get started. Admittedly, I’m not a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan and have only previously watched two of his films from start to finish. I watched Boogie Nights back when it first came out but that was mostly due to the fact that it was about a porn star and about sex, or so I thought. I see now that my younger self wasn’t really ready for that film. The other film of his that I saw was Punch-Drunk Love, which I did like a lot and PTA got one of Adam Sandler’s best performances ever. I just felt like I had to get it out of the way.
When I heard about this film and what it was about, I was super excited and eagerly anticipating the release date. Paul Thomas Anderson was making a film about Scientology and exposing religion? How could I not look forward to that? As the movie began getting screened however, and the reviews started coming out, it became clear that it wasn’t really about religion but rather about a war veteran becoming a drifter and trying to get adjusted to life in a post World War II world. The elements of religion and Scientology are there, but there mostly used as a back drop as center stage is instead given to Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell.
I’ll admit this was a bit disappointing since I expected a full movie about exposing and the origins of organized religion and what would cause a man to follow another man claiming to be a sort of deity. There are touches of that, but just not enough. Frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the L. Ron Hubbard inspired Lancaster Dodd. The man oozes charisma and you can easily see why so many lost souls would choose to follow this man and his ridiculous religion/cult, here called The Cause. Even though I do have strong anti-religious thoughts, I do not find Hubbard/Dodd some sort of evil monster. I really just see him as an opportunist. Here was a man who was also lost, not knowing what to do in life, writing science-fiction, among other things and then he finally found something that worked, and guess what people swallowed the kool-aid. The man found a great way to make a living and to make money and as his son, played by Friday Night Lights alum Jesse Plemons, says in the film, “He’s making it all up as he goes along.”
Phoenix’s character is such a loose cannon and a lost soul, and yet, there’s some Freddie in all of us. The only difference between us and Freddie is that Freddie actually gives in to those animalistic urges. While most of us show a calm exterior and keep so much bottled up, Freddie instead chooses to release all of that onto the world. Phoenix has never been better than he is here. His performance, if you want to call it that, is so real that you almost begin wondering about Phoenix the actual person. I began wondering if Phoenix, with his antics during his I’m Still Here phase, actually needs some help. I really hope that Phoenix knows what he’s doing and that phase and what we see on screen during The Master, is just a performance.
Thinking about this movie again, certain scenes come to mind. The initial Dodd/Freddie meeting and the interview/processing that soon follows is the stuff classic movies are made of. Dodd asks Freddie to answer each question rapidly and without blinking or thinking twice. What we get is such an emotional and raw scene that brings Freddie to tears. Freddie closes his eyes and is transported to key moments in his life. Here we see a woman who he connected with so strongly but whom he eventually ended up leaving behind. She was more the woman he let go than the one that got away. Dodd says everything that Freddie unknowingly wants to here, the two share quite a homoerotic relationship throughout the film. Naturally many people question Dodd and his beliefs, we see how much this angers Freddie and because of that, we see Freddie pretty much become an enforcer for Dodd, physically assaulting those who question Dodd.
The scenes where people do question Dodd and watching how Dodd erupts and fails to maintain his cool, those are the scenes I was expecting more of. Instead, there are only a few sprinkled throughout the film, but man when we do see them, they certainly are worth it and show how great a complete Scientology/religion expose could and would be. My favorite scene involving the religion hypocrisy was when Dodd has just published his second book, and he is approached by one of his followers who has a question about a very subtle but a very important change that has been made in ‘the master’s’ newest publication. While putting his followers during the processing, he would ask them to recall a memory, and in the second book, this woman has noticed that Dodd changed that to imagining a memory. Dodd doesn’t really see why this is so important, or perhaps he does realize what a mistake it was, either way the man becomes so angry that one of his followers would question him that he just erupts at this woman.
The always great and beautiful Amy Adams also is in this film, playing Dodd’s wife and pretty much being the brains behind the man/religion. She doesn’t speak too much or have too many scenes, but when she does, she certainly makes it count. I believe she knows how much bullshit all that Cause stuff was, but she also realizes how they are so close to something huge and how Freddie can destroy all of that.
This is such a beautiful film to look at. With a lot of the film taking place on boats, there are a lot of beautiful shots of the water that are really breath-taking. The film, being set in the 1950’s, doesn’t really hold special effects, but I really felt throughout that Joaquin Phoenix’s face itself was some sort of special effect. What the man does with every inch of his face is quite extraordinary. The creases, his lips, and his noticeable scar all add to his character and I couldn’t really picture anyone else in this role. I don’t usually talk nor really care about awards, but man Phoenix really deserves to win best actor.
Watching a great film, I can’t help but wonder if the director and screenwriter can actually stick the landing and give it a great ending. As time runs out, I just wonder how the movie is going to end. Here, I felt like it could have ended at several points. There’s a scene in the desert where Dodd is doing one of his experiments. It’s Freddie’s turn, and he mounts the motorcycle and rides away from his master as fast as he can. It really felt appropriate and felt like it could have just ended right there in that moment. This is Freddie giving in to his animalistic urges and just doing whatever comes to mind. He then goes to visit his past girlfriend/the love of his life all the while not realizing how much time has actually passed. The girl’s mother lets him know that seven years has passed, her daughter is now married and has two kids. This hits Freddie hard of course, but in a rare turn of events, he is actually able to deal with it and doesn’t explode. We then see Freddie asleep in a movie theater when he suddenly gets a call from Dodd. Dodd tells him that he needs to see him, he realizes where they previously met and how he has found a way to cure him of his insanity. Suddenly, as Freddie wakes up we realize it was a dream. Freddie however, does go visit Dodd in England, where the Cause continues to gain more followers. The final scene between the two also feels like it could have ended the film.
Here we see how vengeful Dodd really is as he tells Freddie he can stay and never doubt his beliefs again or he can leave and never return. As Freddie already knows there’s no chance in hell he’ll stay, he tells Dodd, “Maybe in another life.” Dodd lets Freddie know that if he leaves then in another life they’ll be hated enemies. It becomes obvious who the insane one really is, even if society doesn’t really see it that way. At the end of the film, Freddie, while still a loose cannon, still lost, has at least found a certain peace. Lancaster Dodd, however realizes that there is no turning back and is all in with his new religion. The thought is absurd but as Hubbard once said, “The easiest way to make a million dollars, is to start a religion.” As I said before, the man is an opportunist and I can’t really blame him. It’s those lost souls who I really believe are the idiots for falling for and believing all that nonsense. Maybe idiot is a bit harsh, but if they can’t see how ridiculous The Cause/Scientology or any religion really is, well then let’s just say that idiot is a fitting word.
While I would have preferred if this film was the other way around, with the starting a religion theme taking center stage and the drifter in a post war world playing second fiddle, this is still a very strong/great film. Maybe someday someone will come along and make that film, fully exposing what causes a man to create a religion, what causes a man to follow another man and how a science-fiction writer can create a religion that to this day has over eight million followers. It’s such an insane thought, but it is however, a fact. For now, however, Paul Thomas Anderson has created an epic film, one that is worthy of his name, his catalog and one that will be discussed for years to come and which will provide endless debate about what it all really means.