Wednesday, August 22


In 1950, a drunk named Freddie Quell meets a writer named Lancaster Dodd who is starting some kind of religion.  The plot of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's latest masterpiece sounds simple enough, but the structure of this story is very unusual, because this is Freddy's story and not Dodd's.  Dodd's story would be more logical and orderly, probably with an emphasis on names, dates, facts, and figures.  No, this is Freddy's story.  So the timeline is hazy.  You only hear most characters names once or maybe twice.  We hear Freddy's name over and over again but the other characters are known mostly by their place in the hierarchy.  There is no conventional three act structure to this story.  Lots of scenes moving this way and that, from one place to another just like Freddy.  From one scene to the next he might be across the country or across the world.

Joaquin Phoenix is a completely hypnotic as Freddie Quell, a man with only two desires, sex and booze.  He is a live wire, a rapscallion, a ne'er do well, a nogoodnik, a bad seed, a trouble maker, a hell raiser, a skirt chaser, a moon shiner, an aimless drifter, and an unpredictable savage.  If Joaquin Phoenix pretending/not pretending to be crazy a few years ago was practice for this, then all the more power to him, because he seems as dangerously committed to his part as Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood.  Seeing Joaquin Phoenix destroy a jailhouse toilet will make you forget all about that sink he destroyed in Walk The Line.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman's performance as Dodd is not as dogmatic, didactic, or authoritarian as you might expect.  He is first seen cutting a rug at a late night yacht party, and he does a surprising amount of singing and dancing in this movie.  But it makes sense.  No man could start a religion without being charming as hell.  Dodd always knows exactly what to say to people, and it's only when the sum total or his remarks is considered that some people have doubts.

We learn about Dodd through seeing him behave.  There are no ex-wives, chatty mothers, or grumbling former supporters filling in pointless exposition.  He seemingly has no backstory.  I'm not even sure if he was supposed to be a science fiction writer or some other kind of writer.  Just as members of his movement, called The Cause, might not ever question his credentials, once Dodd declares himself a nuclear physicist, the issue is settled.  His techniques are fascinating because of how pointless they are.  Once people have agreed to do what he says (submitting to conditioning or processing or whatever the hell they call it) the actual mechanics are moot.  They have already surrendered their will.

Amy Adams is the secret weapon of this film.  She plays Dodd's wife Mary Sue who plays up the devoted spouse angle in public life, but becomes another beast entirely behind close doors.  When she is alone with her husband, in the bedroom, at the dining table, or even in the bathroom, she morphs into a terrifying beast, an hysterical red-faced ranting vicious Lady Macbeth type who thinks death for her husbands enemies would be going easy on them.  A final scene where she sits behind Dodd, silently judging him and controlling his behavior, is especially remarkable considering she leaves the room partway through and still maintains her presence.

You could describe the plot in one or two sentences, summarizing accurately over two hours of events, and it would seem straightforward enough.  But when you're actually watching the damn thing...  You have no idea what will happen next.  Will someone erupt with rage?  Or flee from conflict?  Where will we be next: New York, Massachusetts, San Francisco, England, or some remote Pacific atoll?  The story is paired perfectly with Jonny Greenwood's score, an unpredictable occasionally atonal mixture of wood blocks and plucked strings along with a few choice period tunes.

This movie isn't really about Scientology.  There Will Be Blood wasn't really about oil, if you ask me.  Daniel Plainview could have stayed a silver miner and a story of ambition and rivalry could still be told.  The details of the Scientology analogue here, called The Cause, are few and far between and don't really cement any clear parallels to the actual group.  The movie is better for it.  Just as There Will Be Blood transcends being a story about oil, this is not a story about cults in general or a cult in specific.  Dodd is every man who would tells others what to do, and Quell is every man who cannot be told what to do.  Neither is the hero or villain of the piece.  Instead of being at odds with each other, they spend much of the film hanging out and being friends.  Quell seems drawn to Dodd's wealth and power, and Dodd is enraptured by Quell's eternally restless nature.

This film is beautiful to look at, beautiful to listen to, and endlessly engrossing to think about.  The best movie I have seen so far this year by leaps and bounds.  Oscar season came early for me and I'm worried everything else might be a letdown.  At least I can see this again when it opens regularly on September 14th.  Mark your calenders.

~ The credits weren't yet attached so I had trouble figuring out some of the smaller roles.  Laura Dern, from lots of movies but all I can remember is Jurassic Park, appears briefly.  Kevin J. O'Connor, who played Daniel Plainview's ill fated brother in There Will Be Blood, also shows up.  I recognized Jillian Bell, the female coworker on Workaholics, in one scene.  Rami Malek, who was great in The Pacific, plays Dodd's son-in-law and the closest thing to a 'true believer.'  Jesse Plemons, of Friday Night Lights and recent Breaking Bad fame, plays Dodd's son and his resemblance to Phillip Seymour Hoffman is much better than typical cinematic families.

~ Most of the trailers use alternate/deleted footage.

~ There is a recurring image of a ship's wake.  Beautiful churning waters of the post war world, of the soul, of the mind, of gorgeous blue and white circles.  Is it Dodd's wake?  Is it Freddie's?  Is it America's?  They could have made these shots twice as long and twice as frequent and I wouldn't have complained.

~ Scorsese and the Coen Brothers finally got their Best Director statues, I wonder how much longer Paul Thomas Anderson will remain overdue.

~ Jeremy Renner was originally attached to the Quell part, but dropped out in part to join the Bourne franchise, which also claimed PTA's long time cinematographer Robert Elswit.  Mihai Malaimare shot the film instead and did a magnificent job.

~ Quell is sometimes as hard to understand as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.

~ The Film Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of film founded by no less than Martin Scorsese, hosted the advance screening of this film at the Castro Theatre.  This film was shot in 70mm, which hasn't been used like this in decades, and the Castro Theatre is one of too few remaining theatres proud to screen films in 70mm when possible.  If you somehow get the chance to see this film (or any film) in 70mm I highly recommend it.  Someday you'll have to explain to your grandkids what 'film' was and a personal anecdote will help your boring story.

~ I think Paul Thomas Anderson might have attended the screening because I saw his wife Maya Rudolph in the lobby.

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