If, in the course of your life, you wind up traveling a path that necessarily involves other people calling you "Master," you can rest assured that you're out of the mainstream of society. I'm not talking about sex; that's mundane, something Depeche Mode writes songs about. You know you're really in your own world when entire groups of obedient followers who aren't dressed in latex dog costumes are constructing their entire lives around your personal charisma. That's the life of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman -- robust, charming and furious), the leader of a self-actualization movement known as The Cause. It's a nascent cult based on very speculative, fantastical science -- one that probably bears enough resemblance to Scientology to make John Travolta angry but not enough to warrant any other discussion -- and Dodd is Big Daddy, always on the make for fresh recruits.
Along comes Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix -- tormented and gaunt). He drinks alcohol. He drinks Lysol. He drinks whatever he can find. And that's for starters. He's also prone to choking total strangers, food-throwing episodes and sex with sand castles. He's as mentally ill as they come, so, of course, a cult is just the thing he needs in his life to help him get his head on straight.
The two men quickly enter into a father/son dynamic that involves Dodd "processing" Freddy, punishing interrogations designed to break him down and make him compliant with the movement's rules and Dodd's authority. This proves challenging, though, and Freddy winds up taking on the role of hockey goon, the loose cannon who takes out interlopers and annoying question-askers when Dodd doesn't want to get his hands dirty. And if you're thinking you've seen this sort of thing from director Paul Thomas Anderson before, you're about half-right. As a couple, they're the next logical step in Anderson's makeshift family slide show of messed-up men, a line that moves from Burt Reynolds and Mark Wahlberg's pairing in Boogie Nights
toward the combative Daniel Day-Lewis/Paul Dano milkshake-off in There Will Be Blood
. Anderson knows how to drop a bomb into the middle of the idea of parents and children, and here the connective tissue is at its most frayed and least operational. You get a destruction's-eye-view of dominance and sorrow and need, one that ignores sentimentality and other received ideas about How Things Should Be. Then all this emotional fracture is set against a backdrop of post-World-War-II optimism, situating itself for the duration in the valley of American obsession with (and crazy impatience for) larger spiritual answers, throwing these outsiders into even sharper, sadder relief.
Most importantly, in terms of big-screen pleasure (exactly where you should be seeing this, by the way), Anderson's filmmaking is hitting its stride. There's more control, precision and cinematic beauty in his work than ever before, and he's collaborating with next-level peers like cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (he shot Francis Ford Coppola's under-seen Tetro
and his sense-stroking visuals are the kind you sit in the front row for) and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, whose score is the best of any mainstream American film this year. At this point, Anderson's on his way to master status himself and I've happily signed on for his cult -- provided I don't have to commit suicide wearing a monochrome jumpsuit or knock on strangers' doors.