In post-war America Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) , a former soldier with an abnormal libido and a hobby of making near toxic alcohol, is wandering through life like an actor oblivious of his stage. His course takes a slight detour when he wakes up aboard a ship with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his followers who make up "The Cause", a cult-ish religion clouded in the guise of science, philosophy and psychology. Dodd sees in Quell the opportunity to display the power of his new methods, and in Dodd Quell sees a mentor and hope for answers to the questions that plague all humanity.
Like many of Anderson's films the pace can often be trying and the often surreal visions expounded are certainly not for everyone's taste. Images of swirling water are only a drop in the bucket of metaphors Anderson buries his audience in. Like Anderson's last film, 2007's There Will Be Blood, gorgeous imagery and an eerie score help create a dream-like sense of bewilderment that stays with you long after the lights go up and the popcorn is stale.
Anderson's ability to craft film as art is only matched by his eye for talent. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his fifth collaboration with Anderson, plays Dodd with wonderful simplicity that allows the complexity of the character speak for itself. With subtly and reserve Hoffman lets his character's egotism and magnetism shine through Anderson's typically biting dialogue. Joaquin Phoenix, still recovering from his 2010 film debacle I'm Still Here, gives a powerhouse performance reminding us all what was so intriguing to begin with. Somehow Phoenix makes a character who should come off as a simpleton violent alcoholic a very empathetic and human individual. In the end he is still not very likable, like many people in this world, but you can nevertheless sympathize with his mortal struggle. Whether or not Phoenix will get the Best Actor Oscar as many have discussed is still anyone's guess, especially with the multi-Oscar winning Daniel Day Lewis (who won his second Oscar for Anderson's There Will Be Blood) in the competition. Rounding out the cast is Office darling Amy Adams as Dodd's wife Peggy, who has a far more pragmatic view of the relationship between Dodd and Quell.
It is a tragedy how often brilliance is not recognized by those in its presence. P.T. Anderson with masterpieces like Boogie Nights, Magnolia and There Will Be Blood under his belt would surely be Oscar material, but he is not. After the fall when Spielberg and all the other mainstream directors release their fare Anderson's little art film will receive little attention. He may get a nod with yet another nomination, but the sad truth is that his work may simply be ahead of his time. Just as his films are too "arty" for mainstream box office success the Oscars are too mainstream for him. So maybe he won't get the award until he's thirty years deep like Scorsese or perhaps never at all, but perhaps that's okay. After all he is in good company, there have been other perfectionist film makers who never won the Best Director statue, like Orson Welles.