The Master is a spectacular display of filmmaking technique, and in the often arid landscape of contemporary American cinema, that in itself is reason enough to recommend the film unreservedly. But I do have my reservations about Paul Thomas Anderson's sixth feature, even as I recognise that it reconfirms his status as one of the most ambitious and innately gifted directors working today. I appreciated The Master on almost every level – composition, editing, performance – and it contains a number of scenes that look and feel like nothing else. I was fascinated and hugely impressed by the picture, but I can't yet say if it really works as a story or a character study; is The Master really a great film, or is it simply the flawed work of a great director?
Such a question hardly seems worth asking in the film's hypnotic opening hour, which is where Anderson's artistry is most evident. The Master begins with a gorgeous shot of wide-open ocean waves, and it introduces us to a character who is all at sea. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is serving his last days in the US Navy and preparing to go home, but the deep-rooted psychological scars left by his WWII experiences have not yet healed. This is Phoenix's first acting role since he notoriously attempted to torpedo his own career with I'm Still Here, but if anything his performance here is even more unexpected and strange. Within minutes of the film's start, we see him simulating sex with a woman built out of sand, and when he returns to the US and attempts to rejoin civilised society, we watch each agonising scene just waiting for the time bomb to go off.
Phoenix is all stiff angles and jutting elbows, mumbling lines out of the side of his tightly grimacing mouth. There's something raw and animalistic about him, something he tries to contain but cannot prevent exploding out of him in violent, often moonshine-fuelled outbursts. He seems doomed to drift across America from town to town, job to job, leaving regret and recrimination in his wake, but his decision to hop on board a yacht one night gives him a shot at salvation. The boat belongs to Lancaster Dodd, a man who is developing an idea known as "The Cause" that bears more than a passing similarity to L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology religion, but a critique of that movement is not what Anderson is after here. The Master explores the fractured psychology of post-war America and examines the nature and limits of control, but the real heart of the story is this relationship between Dodd and Quell. Operating on the father-son dynamic that has driven so many of PT Anderson's films, The Master becomes a kind of love story between two very different men who feed something in each other, but whose relationship is ultimately doomed.
The pas de deux that Quell and Dodd engage is spellbinding to behold, with the clashing acting styles of Phoenix and Hoffman creating a riveting tension and chemistry. A "processing" scene that consists entirely of tight close-ups (Mihai Malaimare Jr's 65mm cinematography is most potently used in such shots) is a bravura piece of acting from both men, but as the film progressed I yearned for a shift in focus. Freddie is a static character in many ways, incapable of moving forward or cutting free of the ties that bind him, and watching him can be an incredibly frustrating and exhausting experience. In contrast, I found myself increasingly drawn to Dodd, just as Freddie and the other Cause followers are. Hoffman's performance as this self-appointed visionary oozes charisma and garrulous charm – he's part preacher, part snake-oil salesman – but some of the most telling and intriguing moments in the film come when this mask slips. "He's making it all up as he goes along," Dodd's sceptical son tells Quell, and on the two occasions when Dodd's ideas are challenged or even lightly questioned, he snaps with a blistering fury. I wanted to dig deeper into Dodd, particularly his relationship with his wife (played by Amy Adams in a deceptively bright-eyed performance that's as brilliant and unsettling as anything else in the picture), but Anderson doesn't let us get too close.
Instead, The Master slips away, with the second half of the picture being marked by a series of inscrutable scenes punctuated by ellipses. My love of Paul Thomas Anderson's pictures to this point has largely been down to the unashamed emotional directness of them, especially his stunning late-90s double-bill of Boogie Nights and Magnolia (which, for me, remains his best film). Even the more austere There Will Be Blood managed to hit me on a gut level, but for long stretches of The Master I just felt nothing. The film gets more enigmatic, evasive and wayward with every step, and the momentum of it stalls as Anderson allows it to drift. The level of craft on show never drops, but at some point in the picture Anderson's determination to avoid any easy resolutions or clear answers sees him painting himself into a corner, and leaves the film feeling disjointed and distant.
And yet, as unsatisfying as my initial viewing was, I'm already desperate to see The Master again. There are nagging questions I need to find the answer to (How much of the film is viewed from Freddie's addled perspective? What's the story with that dream he has before leaving for England?) and frustrating gaps that I want to fill. Right now, The Master feels like a confused misstep from a brilliant filmmaker, but when I think of my initial adverse reaction to Punch-Drunk Love – a film I now adore – I can't write off a PT Anderson film just yet. The Master is a film that invites multiple viewings; its greatness will be defined by how fully it rewards them. I want to embrace this film as a vital and distinctive work of modern American cinema, but for the moment The Master keeps slipping through my fingers, like so much sand.