The Master ★★½

Another tale of two men tied together by love and loathing from Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the few directors from whom every movie is a must-see. And, as with his last one, the story is framed so tightly around these central characters that there's barely any room for anyone or anything else to squeeze in. But whereas There Will Be Blood was a gripping experience - that ill-judged ending aside - this follow-up is as erratic as its protagonist: a frustrating, pretentious and unsatisfying film that builds up a head of steam time and again, only to repeatedly fall away to nothing.

Joaquin Phoenix is an unpredictable, alcoholic and horny World War Two vet still crippled by PTSD, five years on from being demobbed. Wandering by chance into the life of a cult leader and skilled manipulator (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he falls under his spell, prompting numerous peculiar psychological experiments.

What power the film has comes largely from its performances. Amy Adams is decent but underused in an underwritten part, while Hoffman plays a man of menace and charisma with oodles of both, but it's Phoenix who leaves the greatest impression, with surely his finest performance to date. Gaunt, haunted and hampered by a slow mouth and a slower mind, his characterisation is coarse, violent, dislikeable and yet human, a man living in the shadow of past failings, but too inarticulate and fuzzy-minded to put things right.

Unfortunately his efforts and the strong period atmosphere - created by an ingenious photography sequence and a slew of jazzy period tunes - are spent on a script that has a great many virtues and fine individual scenes, but even more flaws, with many sequences that are laughably written, elliptical to the point of parody or just plain boring. Anderson is out of his comfort zone, striving for the existential majesty of a Malick film, and frankly he seems out of his depth. The Master is a film with an enquiring mind and an intriguing view of cultery - shown insightfully from the inside - but it's also extremely self-satisfied, entirely humourless and a good deal less than the sum of its parts.

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