In a special sneak preview screening, in 70 mm, at the glorious Castro Theatre.
This is Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, and I was surprised to realize that he hadn't completed a movie since 2007 with THERE WILL BE BLOOD (which is still among my all-time favorites.) I was also apparently the only person in the theater who didn't know anything about what the movie was supposed to be about. I went solely on the fact that it was Paul Thomas Anderson, but everyone else there seemed to know that it was in some way about Scientology.
Well, the Scientology parallels are there if you look for it, but it's not really about that. And I don't just mean that they change enough of the cult (it's called The Cause, founded by Lancaster Dodd, not L. Ron Hubbard) that it's not obviously Scientology. The fact is the movie is not really about the cult at all. It's about a WWII vet and his struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (although it's never called that, there's just one brief scene where a psychiatrist talks to a group of returning soldiers about their "nervous condition.")
That soldier is Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and you can bet that he'll at least get an Oscar nomination out of this. He's a hard drinking, hard-fucking drifter. And when I say hard-drinking I don't just mean alcohol. He drinks fuel right out of bombs. He mixes drinks with photograph developing solution, paint thinner, whatever he can find. And he serves these drinks to his friends and colleagues, sometimes poisoning them. And then one night he stumbles onto a boat that happens to be owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who gives him a job on the ship and teaches him the ways of The Cause. He also takes quite a shine to the powerful concoction in the flask Freddie was carrying. Their relationship forms the majority of the movie, although the crazy drinks sort of disappear as Lancaster's wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams) disapproves of the boozing.
Now Lancaster Dodd is clearly based in part on L. Ron Hubbard, but I don't know enough about either Scientology or The Cause to say if they're at all similar. There's no talk of Thetans or Xenu, and personally I think the only people who would make Scientology connections are people who already know something about and have formed an opinion of Scientology. So to Scientologists who are offended by this movie, my only advice is to be offended in silence. Talking about it will only point out a Scientology parallel that many people wouldn't see in the first place. I know the scenes that will upset them the most are scenes implying that Lancaster is simply making up his religion as he goes along (although he insists he's simply incorporating new data from his studies.) And there are scenes where Lancaster loses his composure (it seems he's also suffering from some sort of PTSD, although he hides it better than Freddie.) But these are fine when he's the leader of a generic cult, so why go around raising the thought that this is really supposed to be about Scientology.
And anyway, I've already stated that this is Freddie's story, not Lancaster's. And it's the story about his struggle with PTSD. And it's about how he believes in Lancaster and The Cause at first, but how he struggles to follow it, leaves it, comes back to it, struggles more, etc.
It's also a dense and somewhat disjointed movie. The most beautiful image--which opens the film--is simply a turbulent wake in a bright, blue water. That image shows up three times in the movie, each time with a different meaning. After seeing it I read that Anderson wrote the movie by writing individual scenes without knowing how to fit them together, and then ultimately found a way. And it's a pretty darn effective way, given how far he goes and the scale of his journey (both geographically and psychologically) Anderson did a remarkable job of tying everything together and even alluding back to opening scenes at the very end.
I also want to talk about my favorite scene--the motorcycle scene. But to do so would get way to spoiler-y, so I'll drop it. If and when you see the movie, you can talk to me about that scene out in the real world.
Running Time: 137 minutes
My Total Minutes: 297,725