First, let me say that Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the character of a cultish group leader, Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix, in the character of Freddie, a WWII veteran with PTSD, unable to reintegrate back into society, give masterful performance in this artsy movie, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Unfortunately, my appreciation for the movie ends there. This is one of those movies, like mysterious pieces of art with blotches of color that you need to stare at for hours and then to appear an intellectual elite, you have to nod and whisper with reverence, “hummm”. With fear of forever being dubbed an anti-intellectual, I write the review below.
Deliberately made unintelligible, the first third of the movie proceeds with barely connected scenes of Freddie’s inability to integrate into the society. While you are still making sense of Freddie’s behavior, (with hardly much empathy, given the lack of explanation of his family history or what he might have been through in the war, at this point), the movie drags on, until you are ready to scream. (I stayed simply because I was only halfway through the popcorn, at this point.) Circumstances bring Freddie in the company of the “master”, Lancaster Dodd, charismatic leader of a cultish group, loosely akin to Scientology. Dodd claims to have discovered “a secret to living in these bodies that we hold” by shedding negative emotions through discovery of layers of past lives that clothe us. The movie seems to pick up a little steam but then drags again, until Dodd is challenged and questioned by a man in a public event, who is subsequently “taken care of”, by Freddie. I enjoyed the movie somewhat more after that as the plot seemed to become clearer.
Yet, the movie is telling a somewhat straightforward story about how the founders of a cult are often charismatic, enigmatic figures, how they play on insecurities of people and squash any questioning or logic and instead make emotional appeal; how some of the most outcast members of the society become their biggest zealots, both through the dangling carrot of acceptance and fear that no one else might like them. But overly obvious attempt to make it into an artsy movie and deliberate attempt to include disjointed scenes, without any deeper explanation (like Dodd’s fascination with Freddie, possibility of homoerotic attraction between the two, Dodd’s wife (played by Peggy Adams) wielding subtle, yet unclear authority from behind the scenes, makes the movie too long (2.5 hours), where most of the painful, agonizing time is spent in figuring out the plot, the storyline, and connection between scenes.
While the movie dares you to enter the tangled web of a cult with its fascinatingly evil and mysterious beliefs and practices, with such an expert cast and a good story, it could have been a must-watch movie. But alas, it tried too hard to be artsy, experimental movie and in the process emerges as pseudo-intellectual, incoherent, boring, long, disjointed, and muddled rendering of events where primary storyline is often forgotten, as your mind wanders to something more pleasant. Complexity can also bring clarity and movies can also raise insightful questions and it can be done without making it a boring, painful experience. If you loved the movie, then forgive me. But I want to exercise my brain in emerging technologies stories in conferences and when I go to movies, I want it to be at least a semi-pleasant experience and first third of the movie left me shuffling in my seat, gasping for air and dying with boredom. I say, skip this one and save the money. I rate it a 2.5 on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being excellent.