The year is 1950. Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has founded a new religious philosophy based on the notion that we can all be free of "past trauma" if we recognize that man is not an animal but rather a soul that lived through trillions of years and thousands of lifetimes. But if that's true, how do you explain Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), whose back is so hunched, whose shoulders are so narrow, and whose arms hang so low to the ground that he looks like some missing link between man and beast. He walks upright, but unsteadily, as if he just learned how to do it. If anyone ever evolved from apes, it's Freddie Quell. And recently.

Quell, who wanders into Dodd's life in a drunken stupor and becomes his confidant, assistant, photographer, and unofficial bodyguard, doesn't just look like an animal; he behaves like one, lashing out anyone who threatens Dodd with the ferocity of a caged tiger. Most of the members of Dodd's movement called him "The Master" because he is the head of their religion. When Quell calls Dodd "Master" it sounds different. Their relationship is as much teacher and pupil as attack dog and owner.

That relationship forms the core of Paul Thomas Anderson's remarkable new film 'The Master,' which is less about the origins of Scientology -- although Dodd is an undeniable analogue for L. Ron Hubbard, the man who invented the infamous religion -- than about the push and pull between these two men.

Quell, played with incredible physicality and wounded, soulful eyes by Joaquin Phoenix, begins the film idling away the waning days of World War II, where unspeakable horrors have left him with what his doctors call a "nervous condition." He gets a job working in a department store portrait studio, but a combination of repressed pain and the home brew he ferments out of photochemicals in his darkroom causes him to snap and strangle a customer. He winds up picking cabbage somewhere out West, then loses that job to drink as well. From there he finds Dodd, played in an equally remarkable performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Dodd's inner circle -- including his quiet wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and his skeptical son Val (Jesse Plemons) -- all warn The Master to keep his distance from the unpredictable, angry Quell. The two men exist at different ends of life's spectrum. Dodd speaks with the jaunty elocution of a diction professor; Quell mumbles his words, often unintelligibly, out of the side of his clenched mouth. Dodd has a family that grows larger each time his traveling ministry decamps to another city, from New York to Philadelphia to Phoenix to England; Quell is totally alone. Dodd works hard to tamp down whatever guttural urges exist within him; Quell rages and lusts in great eruptions of emotion.

What keeps these men together, despite their differences? That is the great and fascinating mystery of 'The Master,' which is, even in its most perplexing moments, always a delight to watch thanks to the astonishing performances of the two leads and the gorgeous 70mm imagery provided by Anderson and his cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr. On the surface, Anderson has mellowed considerably from the filmmaker who gave us the brash pyrotechnics of 'Boogie Nights' and 'Magnolia.' There are few-to-none flashy camera tricks; all the most visually mesmerizing moments belong to the actors, particularly the explosive scene where Dodd "processes" Quell using his psycho-hypnotic investigative therapy, forcing him to answer a series of probing questions without blinking. The sequence, conducted almost entirely in long take close-up, is one of the most powerful in any movie this year. You won't blink either.

That's not to say that Anderson has abandoned visual storytelling; he's just being a bit more subtle about it. The motif that struck me on first viewing was the image that opens the film, and then repeats two more times over the course of 'The Master''s 137 minute runtime: a boat's wake seen from the back of a ship as it churns through the ocean. It suggests the turmoil Quell leaves wherever he goes, and the way in which Dodd demands his followers look into their murky pasts in order to find inner peace. And, come to think of it, the way Anderson casts his gaze back into the 1950s to create this sad portrait of postwar America, when men came home damaged from Europe and the Pacific and tried to make sense of what they had seen and done.

Interestingly, for all the talk about Dodd's "Processing" and his attempts to resolve "past trauma," Anderson never shows us the incidents that broke Quell's mind (he does reveal, in flashback, one source of his crude attitude towards women). Dodd's techniques are so focused on the distant hypothetical (and potentially imagined) past, they have no time to heal recent, incontrovertible pain.

Still, 'The Master' isn't ultimately about whether Scientology is a cult or a legitimate religion, or whether L. Ron Hubbard was a philanthropic genius or a greedy charlatan. Stripped of its luminous imagery and twitchy, iconoclastic score by Jonny Greenwood, it is a fairly simple story about the symbiotic bond between two troubled men, and the way in which their connection offers both the chance to make sense of life's confusing paradoxes together. To walk like a man, as it were.

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'The Master' opens in select theaters on September 14th.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

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