Freddie Quell is a navy soldier who can't cope with returning to society after World War II. He was obsessed with sex while overseas, and his impotence makes him socially awkward upon returning to America. He also drank during the war, and his return sent his alcoholism fully overboard. One night, wandering around drunk in San Francisco, he finds himself stowing away on the boat of cult leader Lancaster Dodd. Dodd develops a taste for Quell's particular interesting alcoholic beverage, and he asks Quell to stay and attend his daughter's wedding upon the boat. While aboard, Dodd teaches Quell the teaching of The Cause, his cult, and subjects him to a series of psychological questions that he calls Processing. Quell confesses his darkest secrets to Dodd, and he becomes very attached to the cult's teaching. The other members of The Cause question Quell's presence, calling him damaging to the image of The Cause, but Dodd is fiercely loyal to Quell for unknown reasons. Quell begins to question whether The Cause is real after Dodd's son reveals to him that he believes Dodd simply makes it up as he goes. When Dodd is arrested for posing falsely as a psychologist, Quell attacks the police and gets arrested himself, earning himself a chiding from Dodd. As Dodd prepares a new book for his cult to absorb, Quell must continue to try to convince himself that Dodd knows what he's doing.
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Best part of story, including ending:
It's an exceptionally strange story, but it's so brilliantly acted and written and it has so much to say about masculinity that it's an instant classic.
Best scene in story:
The scene in which Quell is Processed for the first time by Dodd is an all-time great, full of rich psychological analysis and intense acting.
Opinion about the main character:
Quell is not a terribly likable character, due to his inability to control himself, but he is immensely fascinating from beginning to end, thanks to Phoenix's id-driven performance.