The nominations: Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress
The film: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a Naval veteran of World War II suffering from PTSD, alcoholism, and sex addiction. He tries to reintegrate into society, getting a job as a portrait photographer at a department store, but is set into fits of rage with no warning; he gets into a senseless fight with a customer that gets him fired. He gets hired as a worker on a cabbage farm, but when an elderly migrant worker dies after drinking Quell’s moonshine, he is chased away from that job. One night while horribly drunk Quell is mesmerized by a lovely boat at dock filled with lively and seemingly content people; he sneaks onboard and falls asleep. The boat’s owner is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a philosopher and leader of movement known as “The Cause.” A benevolent man, Dodd invites Quell to stay for his daughter’s wedding. Dodd and Quell become fast friends, Dodd being a fan of Quell’s intense moonshine. After Dodd “processes” Quell with a series of psychological and philosophical questions, Quell becomes a staunch follower of The Cause, willing to do Dodd’s bidding as he’s finally found a place to belong and be accepted. Quell confides in Dodd about his mentally ill mother, dead father, incest with his aunt, and the young girlfriend he abandoned to go off to war. The two are enthralled by each other, Quell drawn by Dodd’s magnetism and acceptance, Dodd fascinated by Quell’s fury and je-ne-sais-quoi. Quell becomes such a fervent follower that he follows a man who openly questioned the Cause to his apartment and violently assaults him.
Despite Dodd’s love of Quell, the rest of the members are generally afraid of Quell’s erraticism especially Dodd’s wary and observant wife Peggy (Amy Adams) who sees Quell as a danger to everything. While staying at the home of a follower in Philadelphia, Peggy tells Quell he can only stay if he stops drinking. Quell aggress to the request but indulges anyway. Quell is increasingly uncomfortable around Dodd’s adult son Val as well who tells Quell that his father is really an elaborate fraud. Dodd is arrested for practicing medicine without a license and Quell is subsequently arrested as well for assaulting Dodd’s arresting officers. In jail, Quell destroys his cell and rages at Dodd for being a phony. Dodd is eventually able to calm Quell and the two reconcile, but the rest of the Cause members are suspicious that Quell is either insane, an undercover agent, or possibly both. Quell continues with exercises given to him by Dodd that are supposed to help open his mind and help him discover his past life but to no avail. Quell becomes frustrated until Dodd gives him a test that he does seemingly pass and is quieted again. Quell attends the release of Dodd’s second book in Phoenix, AZ where he listens to the publisher openly criticize the book; Quell follows and assaults her on the sidewalk. During an exercise in the desert where Quell is supposed to pick a point in the distance and rise towards it as fast as he dares on a motorcycle he ends up driving away, leaving Dodd behind and resolving to get back together with his girlfriend from before the war who has already moved on with her life. Quell does have a dream one day that Dodd calls him from England and urges that they reunite. Still desperate for solid answers to all of his questions Quell goes to England in the hopes of Dodd giving him those answers, accepting him back like the prodigal son with open arms.
The odds: If ever there were only one collection of cinematic art to teach one the finer points of objectivity, that is the difference between love and respect, it would be the filmography of Paul Thomas Anderson. Only in his early forties and already a prominent and formidable director as well as an arthouse hero, Anderson’s movies are intense dissections of minutia that never fail in their predilections of grandiosity, not to mention as lofty and generally enigmatic as the semantics of the former half of the sentence. Anyone who admires Anderson’s work does so because the emotional assaults of his narrative leave an indelible mark and that is a power to be feared and appreciated. There Will Be Blood proved to be a frightening examination of will to power and was made all the more jarring by Daniel Day-Lewis’s ruthless performance. The Master is, if possible, a twistier and more deranged and even more frightening companion piece to Blood, and as such is brought to striking life by the power of its actors. Anderson looks at personality and human dynamics through the relationship of L. Ron Hubbard facsimile Lancaster Dodd played coolly by Philip Seymour Hoffman and his deranged and hopelessly gullible acolyte Freddie Quell played with freakish, zealous intensity by Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman and Phoenix’s characters are perfect foils of one another, Quell’s earnest and thoughtful mind visible through his insanity because of Dodd’s calming fatherly effectiveness and Dodd’s deranged and haphazard notions peering though his warmth and affability because of Quell’s manic energy. And then there’s Amy Adams as Dodd’s pregnant wife Peggy lurking in the background, her steely resoluteness masking a vicious will as well. The three nominated actors represent this movie well, animating Anderson’s musings on transparenscy and what constitutes sanity and self-control. The whole movie is a puzzle though and whoever is able to concretely decipher a meaning out of it after a single viewing should win a stuffed animal. Movies like this though are easier and more enjoyable if watched with the intent of being immersed in the ideas of the movie rather than the story itself. Anderson has a habit of reveling human study, plunging multi-dimensional characters into multi-potential-outcome situations like dropping starved rats into a sealed box and making bets on which one will come out alive. Anderson likes watching the lightning strike: he doesn’t care why or how or from where, just that is and that he can revel in amazement. Hoffman, Phoenix, and Adams are that lightning, bottled for your viewing pleasure; none are likely to walk away with a prize on the bog night, their collective presence as nominees signals the respect they command both as actors and as instruments in the grand vision of one hell of an outside-the-box filmmaker.