The Master, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, is what I imagine unsatisfying sex is like for a woman. It's really enjoyable for a while, but there's absolutely no payoff, and eventually it just gets tedious and a little bit painful. Paul Thomas Anderson squandered amazing performances from his lead actors by making a film that completely shunned the three act structure, spending it's final half-hour meandering to no semblance of a conclusion.
The truly frustrating thing about The Master's incoherent conflict/resolution is how goddamn brilliant it can be during its best moments. In case you hadn't heard, Phillip Seymour Hoffman can act, and that Joaquin Phoenix guy ain't too bad either. Because the film lacks a structured story, much of it amounts to an eclectic collection of scenes from an interesting relationship between two men. Many of these scenes (particularly the ones near the end) are confusing, strange, and apparently meaningless, but the rest are simply sublime.
The Master has an unrelenting ambiance of disquietude, which I found supremely watchable and engrossing for the first hour and a half. The music is haunting, the camera angles are uncomfortable, and the performances are so chilling that even the tiniest jokes made me want to laugh just to relieve some of the tension. This sort of visceral, gripping entertainment is cinema at it's best. Unfortunately, even the most intense series of scenes can become tiresome if there isn't anything resembling a story. I found myself vainly struggling to find meaning in moments that crossed the line from cryptic filmmaking to indecipherable nonsense. At one point, Hoffman just starts singing for no reason, and keeps singing without explanation for almost two minutes.
While Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman both proved why they are perennial Oscar contenders, Amy Adams took a step back. Perhaps the impeccable performances given by the two lead actors would make anything seem a little amateurish, but Adams was distinctly outclassed. The other members of the supporting cast, notably Breaking Bad's Jesse Plemons, are also upstaged completely.
Despite Phoenix and Hoffman delivering top-notch performances, and plenty of fantastic cinematography in superb long takes, The Master is an overall disappointment. It starts off great but just doesn't go a-n-y-w-h-e-r-e. There Will Be Blood, Anderson's laborious but powerful masterpiece, was a fast-paced thrill ride by comparison. If you can stomach the beyond anti-climactic finish, there's a lot to like about this movie, but if you need a decent story to have a satisfying cinematic experience, pass on The Master.