THOSE who suggested Joaquin Phoenix had lost interest in acting (inspired no doubt by those “claims” he wanted to pursue a music career) must surely be eating their words.
If proof were needed that the Gladiator actor has everything it takes to be one of the acting heavyweights of his generation then this is it.
His performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film since the Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood is nothing short of brilliant and must seriously up his chances of securing his own golden statuette at next year’s Awards (having missed out for his nominated role as Johnny Cash in 2005’s Walk The Line).
From the opening scene when we find ourselves in uncomfortable company with Naval veteran Freddie Quell, Phoenix holds our attention and just doesn’t let go over the next almost two and a half hours with his thoroughly believable portrayal of a man cast adrift at the end of the Second World War, aimlessly leading a life fuelled by alcohol (and for that read any lethal fluid concoction going) and regrets.
Sounding punch-drunk and tottering a knife’s edge between geniality and violence, there are several tense moments as we see in his eyes which way he will fall.
His first intense scene with co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman - which sees him holding his own against the acclaimed actor who plays apparent saviour Lancaster Dodd, drawing him into a truth or lie question-and- answer session designed to expose the heart and mind - is a mesmerising master-class in acting.
Fleeing from another drink-induced mess, Quell stows away on a ship where he finds himself welcomed by the charismatic Dodd, his family and followers of his new religion ... a warts-and-all subject which is said to have raised the hackles of Scientologists.
Hoffman’s leader exudes genuine likability and a persuasive power despite hints that behind the convincing smiles there are flaws in The Cause cult, with his own son (Jesse Plemons) suggesting he makes up the woolly logic as he goes along.
As Dodd shares Quell’s mixtures, which would surely kill a lesser class of drinker, it raises questions of whether he, or the alcohol, will master the feckless drifter and who his own master is ... inscrutable wife Peggy (Amy Adams) perhaps.
While they’re out spreading their message, we discover a deep anger within Dodd. “What do you want?!” he rages at a woman who questions a change of direction in his new book.
This is an interesting, unusual and unsettling examination of an inherent need to belong somewhere and the Boogie Nights director manages to sustain our attention – no easy task with a film as long as this – throughout.
Any shorter and perhaps some of its powerful pull would be lost. We wouldn’t feel the impact of that drawn-out indoctrination process or the gradual tightening of the bond between the two men that we like to think is a genuine affection on both sides ... even while Dodd is all-out for unquestioning loyalty.
Phoenix’s brain-addled Quell evokes both our revulsion and sympathy in this slice of life which ultimately offers no answers or real comfort for anyone.