Release Date: 2012
Director: Paul T. Anderson
Why I picked this: I’m a big PTA fan and missed this in theaters
This is one of the hardest movies I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember seeing anything that is so brilliant yet so apparently pointless. The acting and cinematography are first-rate, yet the movie has a very loose structure, and you are meant to wonder if any content in the movie has any meaning. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a World War II veteran apparently trying to find his place in the world in 1950’s America. The first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie is devoted to introducing Freddie; you learn that he is sex-obsessed, he is an alcoholic, he is violent, and he is certainly unstable. Phoenix puts much work into creating this character, with very distinct facial expressions and stance. His life begins to take direction when encountering Lancaster Dodd, portrayed by a charismatic Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd is a “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, and a theoretical philosopher,” but most importantly, is the leader and creator of a movement known as “The Cause,” which was meant to somewhat resemble the Church of Scientology. Phoenix and Hoffman have great chemistry; their characters are instantly intrigued by each other, even though personality-wise, they are completely different. Hoffman is joined by Amy Adams as his wife Peggy Dodd. Peggy is a strong character; she is a follower of The Cause and is loyal to her husband, but she doesn’t blindly subscribe to it; she is an independent mind, and there are subtleties in her performance that convey doubt or uncertainty. Phoenix, Hoffman, and Adams transform in their roles; I see their characters, not actors. The cinematography was just as masterful, no pun intended. Paul T. Anderson’s classic techniques are more subtle and disciplined; there is zooming-in like in “Magnolia,” but it is much slower and less noticeable. There are tracking shots, but they are used more to convey a feeling and aren’t as showy. This movie demands to be seen on a big screen; there are wide and beautiful shots, some of my favorite involving moving across a field. I noticed that a recurring visual element was placing something in the center of the shot; sometimes it would be the subject, sometimes used to display symmetry, and other times a barrier would be put in a center to juxtapose the contrasting elements on both sides of the barrier. One of my favorite shots contrasts the inside of a boat and the sea. Water was also a recurring visual element, used as a transition or used as a background to Freddie, sometimes appearing calm, sometimes violent. But when we get to the story, that’s a different story. After Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd, the movie essentially becomes a string of events. I felt that some could have been removed without having an impact, but I always had the feeling that the movie was meant to provoke some feeling or thought from me, and yet I never understood what it was meant to be. The movie moves at a strange pace, and though I was never bored, I was sometimes frustrated by what I thought was an emptiness in the film’s content. As mentioned, there is a loose structure; the characters have their ups and downs; in the middle of the movie, The Cause is questioned and doubted, even by Freddie. Yet Freddie still displays a fierce loyalty to Dodd and The Cause. I saw this as Freddie finding something that makes sense, something that keeps him on track, even though I never noticed any strong belief in the actual preachings of Dodd and his followers. Lancaster Dodd makes his subjects go through exercises, the most interesting being the Processing, taking the form of a detailed interview. Yet many of the exercises seem pointless, one having Freddie walking back and forth to touch spots on a wall and a window and telling what he feels; this is repeated for hours. I may be stretching, but I thought these exercises were a metaphor for the movie; lacking in reason, but appearing to do so and appearing to be legitimate. Again, I am speculating.
The apparent pointlessness of the plot and some of the content will turn off many; however, I would argue that the performances of Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, along with the stunning cinematography demands to be seen.