Paul Thomas Anderson's closely observed character study represents a reverse image of its predecessor, There Will Be Blood
, in which a prospector (Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis) and his protégé (Paul Dano) engaged in an epic battle of wills.
In this more tonally consistent effort, the acolyte takes center stage. Gaunt, tightly wound, and eerily reminiscent of Montgomery Clift, Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an ex-naval officer suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Since World War II, he's had difficulty holding down a job due to his hot temper and affinity for paint thinner-spiked potions, but the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a more subtle, but equally skillful turn) finds him irresistible as a project, a surrogate son--maybe even the shadow self that he normally keeps hidden (Dodd shares Quell's propensity for the occasional splenetic outburst).
Lancaster welcomes him to join the Cause, a movement that recalls Scientology by way of Freud, since he focuses on the elimination of past trauma through a pseudo-psychoanalytic exercise called processing. If he provides Quell with a surrogate family, much like Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, his loyal wife (Amy Adams) and cynical son (Jesse Plemons) seem more skeptical.
While participating in their rituals, Quell sails with the group from San Francisco to Pennsylvania, but it's hard to tell whether he really believes or whether he's just going through the motions. The lack of clear-cut conclusions will leave some viewers cold, but you've never seen a performance--simultaneously riveting and repellent--like Phoenix's before. -- Kathleen C. Fennessy