Set after the Second World War, we follow the damaged drifter, Freddie Quell, (Joaquin Pheonix) who works his way from department store photographer to field hand to hobo. He meets Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife, Peggy, (Amy Adams) after stowing away on their ship. We find Dodd is a cult leader with enough intellectual credibility to make sense at times. What follows is a sometimes hallucinatory journey into the psyche of alcoholism, cult and need. We are presented with a slow paced film that shows Dodd and his group of followers and the non believers he comes up against.
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and a rousing Amy Adams are the core cast which make this movie great. They pull together a narrative that sees no character growth and explores the nature of insanity, cult, belonging and violence. Hoffman plays the completely self absorbed intellectual, Dodd. Phoenix is completely engulfed in Freddy Quell, who always borders on madness. Phoenix twists himself physically to constantly stoop and we come to see Freddy’s hands on his hips as a gesture that is completely that character’s. Adams even breaks from her usual sunshine-and-lollipops roles to inhabit a pregnant, sharp, severe, almost diabolical woman who will keep her place at her husband’s side at any cost.
Dodd’s philosophies come off at times, as something you might hear the modern day shoppers at Whole Foods saying. Other times he channels the sound and fury of an Evangelist. The thing we know for sure is that Dodd passionately believes every word he says and Freddy Quell would love to believe and belong that deeply as well. After we witness the pain and suffering Freddy goes through, self-inflicted or otherwise, we want to believe for him too.
The most heartbreaking scene for me was set at a meeting of the cult followers. Dodd asks Freddy to walk across the room, touch the wall and describe it. Dodd then has him do the same to the window on the other side of the room. The seemingly harmless exercise turns into a look into madness as Freddy goes back and forth across the room, infinitely repeating the exercise, at times giving up, mumbling to himself, raging, on and on across a spectrum of emotions. I couldn’t help but think of concentration camp prisoners moving rocks endlessly from one side of a room to another. By the time Dodd stoped the exercise I felt the entire audience breathe a collective sigh of relief. It was torture and we were there with him.
The narrative is not the main player here. The plot seems more like a touchstone to see how the characters will act and react, then any real thread you’re supposed to believe or follow. It is an uncomfortable journey where you’re filling in a lot of what’s going on emotionally with your own interpretation of the events unfolding. All you really have to go on is the excellent acting and your own beliefs on the material presented. In the end, none of the characters have grown a millimeter. Freddy is still lost and a drunk, Dodd is also drunk on his own power, having opened a school in England, and we get the sense that the meaning of existence is a goal we will never reach. Whether we believe or don’t believe in anything is completely meaningless.
It’s not an easy film, and certainly not for everyone, but you have to applaud the Weinstein Company for once again bringing art house films to the mainstream. If you haven’t read a good long novel in a while, go see this film. It’s as challenging as any book.
8 cult leaders out of 10