What most people I encounter feel about whom I refer to as “the other Anderson”, I feel about Paul Thomas Anderson, heretofore referred to as PTA. I love PTA. I love the aesthetic of his movies, the soft darkness that haunts basically every frame, the way silence is louder than most dialogue, the way he doesn’t necessarily have a set of really obvious actor muses, the way he lingers on unsettling images, the way he can be funny and disturbing at the same time. There Will Be Blood is one of the most beautiful movies ever made, I think, even if it’s not necessarily the kind you’d want to watch again. Most of PTA’s movies are like that. The Master is the similar, in that it’s uncomfortable and twisted and beautiful, but it’s different in any other way. Joaquin is no DDL, but he’s damn close.
I was very excited about this movie for many reasons, and it met most of my expectations. Seeing it in 70 mm was one, and it was totally worth it; I realize that sounds pretentious, but it also sounds like the intelligent equivalent of, “Seeing Step Up in 3D was totally worth it,” so, suck it. There were many shots of the wake of a boat, and the blue on display in those shots was a blue I’d never seen before. It contrasted so beautifully with the dark colors everywhere else in the movie, almost joltingly so. Seeing Joaquin Phoenix make his real comeback was another, and he definitely did it. His Freddy Kwell was turbulent, in one word, sad in another, complex in a third. He wasn’t exactly enjoyable to watch, because Freddy was so fucked up, but he was magnetic nonetheless. When he wasn’t making his deadly liquor, laughing emptily, speaking in mumbles, or picturing every woman around him naked, he was hunched over. His clothes fit like hand-me downs, his body appeared gaunt, and his demeanor was sickly, if that’s even possible. He went Method, man, and didn’t look back. The result is intense, but I’d expect nothing less from Phoenix or PTA, for that matter.
On the other side of the intense spectrum, we have Philip Seymour Hoffman, the blonde Paul Giammatti. (Both are incredibly good actors who look much older than they actually are. That’s all. It’s not a bad thing.) PSH, which is now my favorite set of initials upon seeing it written out thusly, delivers a different kind of performance, one mostly restrained and mysterious, almost plastic. He lets go a few times, drinking the magic potion and getting arrested, but for the most part he’s stoic, dead-eyed, unidentifiably charismatic, and even creepy. Just the way you’d imagine the figurehead of
Scientology The Cause to be. As he ropes in Freddy, the two develop this symbiotic, co-dependent relationship. It’s unclear how it started, how it ended, why it exists, and what it means.
I think this’ll be the biggest critique of the movie–its ambiguity. Granted, the ambiguity makes the story much weaker than, say, There Will Be Blood. But I think the ambiguity is a good thing. Ambiguity is a huge part of cults, of why cults are fascinating and magnetic and repulsive, depending on who you ask. I think PTA was trying to convey that. We find them creepy because we can’t figure out why people get sucked into them, and yet we watch it all unfold in front of us with Freddy and it makes complete sense. It was chance that he happened upon Lancaster Dodd and company’s boat, it was chance that he had just served in the navy, it was chance that he was a drunk, and all of these circumstances add up to vulnerable, inquisitive, perfect convert. In the end, [spoiler alert] it’s hard to say if The Cause saved Freddy. He got out, he didn’t go for the girl he wanted to go for. Had he stuck with The Cause, would he have been better for it? What’s “better” anyway? Not crazy, but brainwashed? Once you get inside the spiral, it’s hard to get out. That’s maybe the only definite conclusion to come to.
In some ways, I think this film could have been more terrifying. I wish I would have known what monetary benefits Dodd was reaping from his followers, or what benefits he got from the whole arrangement. Peggy, his wife, played by Amy Adams, insinuated that he was allowed to mess around outside of their marriage so long as she never found out about it, but we never saw this play out. She was just as devoted to The Cause as he was, which I found unexpected, and her eyes were even more dead than Hoffman’s. I was expecting a “silent birth” scene to happen at some point, since she was knocked up for most of the movie, but to no avail. And I guess I was expecting more fear, more bullying, and more noise. Not because of There Will be Blood, but because the story seems to lend itself to pent-up anger and explosion. Perhaps PTA was resisting direct comparisons to his previous movie.
In any case, someone’s got to get an Oscar for this thing. Joaquin for lead, Phil (yeah, we’re tight) for supporting, PTA for directing or writing, Jonny Greenwood for his slightly lighter but still furiously beautiful (and ironic) soundtrack, and most importantly, whoever cast Jesse Plemons as PSH’s son. Why this hasn’t happened before is beyond me. They’re twins.