Another week, another Philip Seymour Hoffman film. First it was Synecdoche, New York and now Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master - a film that is arguably equally inscrutable and proceeds at an even more glacial pace. (Thankfully I was forewarned on both accounts.)
Hoffman is Lancaster Dodd, the Master of the title, a quack psychotherapist/mystic who preaches on stage and page about previous lives and regression therapy. But the film's central character is actually Freddie Quell (the quite brilliant Joaquin Phoenix), damaged goods spat out by the US Navy and the Second World War who is left psychologically screwed up, sex-obsessed and alcoholic.
It's the Master's good fortune that Quell - a man whose whole body, in Telegraph reviewer Robbie Collin's brilliantly descriptive terms, "is like a left foot jammed into a right shoe" - lands right in his lap, a stowaway on his boat. Recognising Quell as a man ostensibly quite different to himself, ruled by heart not head, he is fascinated by the interloper and sees him as a subject on whom he can demonstrate the transformative powers of his techniques.
As Quell finds himself sucked into the Master's movement the Cause, a parody of Scientology, it transpires that the two men are actually more alike than it first seems. Just as Quell is an alchemist who can manufacture moonshine out of just about anything, the Master has what the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw refers to as a "gift for intoxicating rhetoric and ideas, cobbled together from bits and pieces of science and established religion". Both men are quick to fly to violence (Quell physical, the Master verbal) when challenged.
The tension of the film comes from the way Quell's animal passions and stumbling search for direction, meaning and self-understanding are set against the Master's attempts to mould him and rein him in, and from a homoerotic subtext that is never quite allowed to come fully to the surface. It's an absorbing and original film, superbly acted, though certainly not an easy watch.