Paul Thomas Anderson is a film-maker from whom special things are expected, and that’s what he has given us – something special. This is Anderson’s meditation on the origins of Scientology and the career of L Ron Hubbard, and perhaps every kind of cult and guru following, which he portrays not as sinister exactly, but as the poignant symptom of loneliness and uneducated intelligence.
It’s an arresting and utterly absorbing psychological drama of marginal lives, an emotional history of charlatanism and gimcrack philosophy, a world of snakeoil truth salesmen offering self-medication of the spirit, all set in a postwar America realised with superb flair and confidence, utterly without cliché. Without preamble, we are plunged into the tortured inner world of its lead character, whose confused sense of pain, destiny and dread is summoned up by the orchestral score by Jonny Greenwood. It has the feel of something by Steinbeck or DeLillo.
This, of course, is not the first time Anderson has dramatised a cult leader: there was the charismatic seduction coach Frank Mackey in Magnolia, played by Tom Cruise. Watching this, I wondered how Cruise might have played the lead role here. What Cruise will make of this film is anyone’s guess.
It has a stunning lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix, a performance quite different from and in advance of anything he has given us before, an achievement that puts him on a par with the young Pacino or De Niro. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a disturbed young man discharged from the US Navy in 1945 after treatment for psychiatric disorder. Freddie is an alcoholic, his face gaunt and haunted, agonised and twisted with his own swallowed misery; he is addicted to the poisonous moonshine he brews himself, a transient who stumbles from job to job, and then finally, through the mysterious workings of fate and zen – as he is given to understand – the hobo Freddie meets his redeemer. He drunkenly attempts to stow away, perhaps with the vague hope of asking for work, on a grand motor-yacht apparently rented for a wedding reception.
The person in charge is Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the cult leader solemnly referred to as “The Master” by his acolytes, a puce-faced public speaker who believes in curing physical and psychological ills by rooting out the previous selves and interplanetary interlopers from millions of years ago, through confrontational interrogations and therapies which are like hypnosis or recovered memory. The Master is secretly amused by Quell, gets a taste for his hooch, and decides to make of him a special project, a perfect case for his enlightened treatment. Freddie is the Fool to his Lear, or Peter (or maybe Judas) to his Jesus. With the encouragement of Dodd’s zealous wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams), and with Dodd’s own tacit consent, Freddie beats up rationalists who try to disrupt their meetings, or even followers who are insufficiently enthusiastic. But Freddie can never forget the emotional pain that brought him to this pass, and Anderson suggests that Dodd’s tragedy is that his friendship with Freddie can never work out, and even that poor, muddled Freddie has a certain innocence, something which can’t be seduced.
Anderson conjures a strange and dysfunctional world, a world that looks like 1950s America, but perhaps more like some alien planet that happens to look exactly like ours, a world pregnant with disturbing secrets. The setpieces and extended scenes are magnificently realised, arresting and bizarre. Freddie the seaman mumbling and masturbating on a beach, Freddie the department store photographer, Freddie the field hand, Freddie the bum. His tattered life passes before us, in its various phases, as in a frieze, stumbling towards his destiny and then onward, leaving even that behind. When he is being broken down by Dodd, the scenes are extended, happening almost in real time: it is discomfiting and bizarre. Hoffman’s performance is not quite as distinctive as Phoenix’s – and he arguably displays some mannerisms from previous movies – but he is utterly plausible as the leader and pseudo-scientific thinker, somewhere between Mussolini and Dale Carnegie.
The movie takes its own place in what Michel Foucault called the History of Unreason – the various forms of madness that are not included in the official history of the western enlightenment. These are people who sign up to crazy worldviews, and eagerly board Dodd’s wandering ship of fools, and yet their emotional lives are real – and not foolish. It is a movie that may alienate and exasperate some, but its audacity, its formal daring and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, make it simply unmissable.