I must say that this film was a huge disappointment. It had Philip Seymour Hoffman as one of its stars, and he usually does quality work. I had also heard that the story was based on L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, and how that modern-day weird religion came to be and operates surely had the makings of an interesting film.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a drunk, inarticulate, sex-obsessed, psychotic seaman who is prone to fits of uncontrollable anger, who is demobilized after the World War II and whose path crosses that of Hoffman, a writer who claims to know that the universe has existed for trillions of years and that we live multiple lives. He claims to have a method of curing people’s mental problems by making them recall their past lives by hypnosis and his cures involve repetitive and seemingly pointless actions. For reasons not explained, he takes a liking to Phoenix and takes him on as a protégé.
So far, so good. You think that you are going to see how Hoffman builds his cult following, using his treatment of Phoenix as a microcosm. So why was the film so bad? Because nothing happens. Instead the film seems to move from one scene to the next without much purpose and at the end of the film, you don’t feel that you have advanced beyond the beginning. The characters do not seem to develop, you do not understand the characters or their motivations any better, their relationships do not seem to have got any deeper, and you do not get a good idea of how the church (referred to as The Cause) got built up or how it operates. I found it highly frustrating.
One problem with the film is that it repeatedly violates playwright Anton Chekhov’s ‘gun rule’ that says “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” In other words, do not introduce unnecessary significant elements into a story or foreshadow things that do not happen. This film is full of such events. In one scene, Phoenix steals things from the home of a wealthy person who is being treated by Hoffman. Nothing comes of it. Hoffman is arrested and charged with embezzling money from another follower. Nothing comes of it. Hoffman’s recently married daughter makes a pass at Phoenix. Nothing comes of it. Hoffman’s son tells Phoenix that his father is a fraud who is making up his quasi-religious views as he goes along, but the father-son relationship does not produce any tension either. There is a strange recurring side story of Phoenix’s relationship with a very young girl in his hometown, the point of which escaped me. And after awhile I found Phoenix’s mannerisms annoying, seeing them as mainly Oscar-bait, an attempt to display his acting skills.
I know that mine is a minority opinion. The film came with generally excellent reviews (86% in Rotten Tomatoes) and three of its stars (Hoffman, Phoenix, and Amy Adams) were nominated for Academy Awards this year, though none won. These people clearly saw something in this film that I missed.
Here’s the trailer.