Silence. The gentle whirring sounds of the computer. Wind rustling outside. The ticking of a clock that you never notice until the nothingness of the moment overcomes you. This is what the prospect of writing a review of a Paul Thomas Anderson film has come to. The latest film written and directed by Anderson is The Master, and it's very much in the vein of There Will Be Blood rather than his previous efforts.
What leaps out the most about The Master is how incredibly uneven it is in pretty much every department, be it the acting, writing, tone, or some of the technical areas. Yet despite an underwhelming first couple of reels it manages to retain enough intrigue for the first three-quarters or so of the film, which is about an alcoholic drifter who becomes involved with a man who is the centrepiece of a burgeoning cult (a not-very-thinly-veiled look at Scientology). There are scenes between the two (played respectively by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman) that are arresting and powerful, but they are frequently undermined by random, jolting moments they have to try to make work.
This stems from the writing as well as how Anderson has them perform it (Hoffman is superb when he's quiet but hammy when he has to attempt a kooky charm, Phoenix broods away nicely but fails to convince when being "crazy", etc.), as ill-fitting and ill-advised moments of attempted humour or distastefulness derail scenes, as does the treatment of sex throughout the film. By the time Phoenix is being fully indoctrinated in to the cult, quite simply, it's impossible to care because this is a film that relies solely on an interest in the subject matter and never really attempts to engage on an emotional level at all.
The one time it achieves that is towards the end when Phoenix has a scene with Lena Endre, where suddenly a great deal of sympathy and empathy pours out of her in a fashion that is completely at odds with the rest of the film. Again, it's nothing if not uneven. Jonny Greenwood's score is all over the shop and frequently grates, the sound design is funky with it occasionally being amped up, every 20 minutes or so there's a really nice shot out of nowhere: it's such a mixed bag.
As a result it's the type of film that's impossible to recommend, even though it has its moments and has some good things going for it. That's because Anderson continually cuts himself off at the knees and does such questionable things that destroy the flow throughout. The tone is so bipolar, so juvenile at times, so misogynistic at others, so focused in one scene then unspooled in the next that it's impossible to get a feel for. This is why watching it becomes such an austere experience, and why the prospect of writing about it such a chore. There isn't really a target audience for this, because it's such a disparate collection of scenes and ideas, and being so cold it really demands a fascination with those ideas and the setting in order to get anything out of it. Difficult to admire, but even harder to care about.