VENICE: Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s portrait of religious cult in post World War II America is definitely one of the most powerful entries in this year’s Biennale Film Festival competition.
Many critics saw the religious cult as a thinly disguised Scientology although the film is more about the relationship between a charismatic leader and his disturber follower who is seeking direction and purpose after his return from the War.
This is Anderson’s first film in five years and it is a very unusual look at post war America that we are not used to seeing. The film is a puzzling character study of a violent and disturbed Naval veteran and his relationship with the “master” a cult religious figure. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman both turn superb performances as the central characters that the film hinges on.
Phoenix plays Freddy Quell a strangely charming and deeply disturbed character that has come disconnected after the war. Phoenix is so deeply into the character that it is disturbing to watch him on the screen at times. He is constantly on edge and ready to turn violent at any time making it impossible for him to hold down a job or succeed in relationships. After a further violent attack he flees to San Francisco where he stows away on a ship where an elegant party is in progress. The elegance of the party and the ship sailing away under the Golden Gate Bridge are stunningly beautiful cinematic statements in contrast to the dark mood of Phoenix’s disturbed character.
Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd a charismatic cult leader and charlatan who becomes Quell’s master. Dodd is well spoken, intellectual and the opposite of Quell and seemingly the two men have nothing in common. But when they meet on board a ship that Quell has stowed away on they form a strong bond. Quell is sick and Dodd is looking for a subject that his new self-improvement religion can “cure.”
There follows a series of intense scenes that make up the core of the film where Dodd questions Quell again and again confronting him and trying to draw out truthful answers to get to the heart of his problems. The dramatic tension is stunning and the impact makes powerful viewing which in the hands of lesser actors could have failed. Some have compared the sessions between Quell and Dodd to the “audit” process that Scientology uses although Dodd’s cult or religion is referred to only as “The Cause.”
Quell follows Dodd to Manhattan where the Master expounds his new religion to his followers and his belief that anyone can be cleansed of negative impulses with the right training. The two men seem locked in a relationship that continues despite the fact that Quell eventually realizes that Dodd is essentially a fraud and Dodd realizes that Quell is deeply unstable and very dangerous to both himself and “The Cause.”
Anderson himself is the real master when it comes to film and the powerful, dark, moody style of his There Will Be Blood is strongly in evidence here too. The director already has his cult fan club and this film will be appreciated by them as well as critics even if it is not as accessible to audiences as his previous film.
Cinematically everything is beautifully shot with every scene full of meaning and style.
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams