To be admired by a drifter is no small compliment. Because, drifter is someone who by nature is unfettered, free to go where and when he desires, and therefore, his adherence to any particular place can either be attributed to his whims, or to the fact that he really likes that particular place or people. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is one such drifter. And what makes things tough for him, or for the people around him is not only his vagabond nature, but also his innate stubbornness to fit into a conventional societal fabric. How would you describe someone who masturbates on sea-beach, assaults someone at work without any overt provocation, dreams up scenario of unnatural sexual tension? Although Anderson quite astutely does not treat him any differently from any other character in the movie. He’s given the same ambience to showcase his histrionics.
And then there’s the cult. It must be fascinating to be a part of cult, any cult. There’s a certain degree of romanticism in members of the group, that they are doing something different, something worthwhile, something everyone else can’t understand, and how everyone’s out to get them, drown their voice. Everyone enjoys a heroic story. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) heads one such cult, called ‘the cause’ (suspiciously similar to the scientology movement of 1950s). Dodd believes by recalling one’s past traumatic experiences, we can understand ourselves better. If looked closely, how dissimilar are drifters and the members of cult? Not much, both have some degree of contempt for conventions. Both are dissatisfied in their own singular ways about how certain things function. The members of cult have the willingness and audacity to rebel while drifters run incessantly searching for that panacea. So the coming together of a drifter and someone who spearheads a cult is interesting because of their ability to be inherently alienated.
One night, an inebriated Freddie escapes from a farm he was working at, and stumbles on to Dodd’s yacht. Freddie can make home-made alcohol (it’s later revealed he uses paint thinner as one of the major ingredients), Dodd likes it a lot and soon develops a liking for Freddie. And soon, Freddie increasingly becomes connected to ‘the cause’. You are not sure if Freddie even identifies with the underlying idea behind ‘the cause’, or if he’s even trying. He’s just happy not drifting at the moment.
Success of any faith/movement is intricately tied to how much trust it can invoke. And its importance is underscored in a cult-like group because there’s little validation from outside. The members of cult can only count on other members. They have to share a common vision, no matter how flawed. Freddie begins watching Dodd’s (called as ‘The Master’) experiments from close quarters and also begins participating in them. A layman may choose to call it hypnosis. But where there’s trust, there’s also cynicism. A leader in that case has to not only epitomize equanimity in case people point fingers at cult, but also acknowledge that he’s not a know-it-all. The Master is neither. He heckles people who question him and his beliefs.
But Freddie takes his allegiance to the cause to a different level altogether. He openly assaults the dissenters and has no qualms about it. And it’s really difficult to stomach this behavior of Freddie’s because it’s hinge-less. It can be all lazily labeled under ‘one abnormal moment of madness’. Maybe the drifter’s getting restless. What kind of a relationship they share then, you wonder? It’s revealed some scenes later when both Freddie and the master are jailed. The Master for practicing medicine without licenese and Freddie for roughing up a few cops. Freddie breaks down in jail and confronts ‘The Master’. We are at our vulnerable worst when enveloped with anger. And for the first time in the movie we really get to know what both think about the other. And whatever it is, it’s not very flattering.
For all its eccentricities, a vagabond is at least clear about the path he takes, no matter where it takes him. On the other hand, the leader of the cult has to be steadfast to his beliefs, even at the cost of contradicting himself, and hence, refuting others, because he has to believe his version of the story first, no matter how twisted it has finally become. The trajectory of the master and the drifter is then somewhat similar. Only difference, the master’s journey can afford the luxury of being circular, the drifter’s cannot. Maybe that’s where the drifter erred.
The performances, quite expectantly, are superlative. Joaquin Phoenix, in particular, enlivens the role of Freddie Quelli. And it’s especially notable because while watching him vacillate we are constantly assessing ourselves. Philip Seymour as the subdued, witty cult leader, but who’s no stranger to sporadic bursts of anger is pretty impressive too, if not equally impressive as Joaquin Phonenix.
However the movie’s main problem is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be – does it want to concentrate on the cause’s rise, its mechanics, or is it more happy exposing and understanding Freddie’s whims? Quite strangely, somewhere down the line they become two different sources of tension in the movie and never manage to effectively enmesh together. It’s also a movie that’s quite long for its running length (137 minutes), especially because of a complete absence of an overarching tension. It’s strange; how same adjective can be used to both extol one movie and damn another. This movie’s reluctance to be cohesive takes a lot away from it. An opportunity created, an opportunity squandered.