Paul Thomas Anderson follows the oily gothic of There Will Be Blood with another American obsession - self-help - in this masterly drama. Philip Seymour Hoffman is devilish dynamite as the charismatic cult leader of The Cause, a self-improvement "religion" not a million miles away from Scientology. Joaquin Phoenix, back from the wilderness of in-joke mockumentaries, also scores as a violent misfit who falls in with Hoffman's gang of goofballs and is seen by the leader as a perfect test case for his outlandish theories. Funny, disturbing and thrilling; unlike real cults, The Master messes with your noggin in all the right ways.
Paul Thomas Anderson
Philip Seymour Hoffman
If rumour is to be believed, Tom Cruise was not pleased. The megastar, who had bagged himself an Oscar nomination in director Anderson's Magnolia, reportedly fumed over this gossamer-veiled critique of Scientology.
And for those claiming The Master is only peripherally about Hollywood's favoured "religion", we cry "mind control!"
The biographical brushstrokes are all present - the polymath L. Ron Hubbard here brought to life as Lancaster Dodd (Hubbard lookalike Hoffman), whose "The Cause" (Scientology) promises to cure ailments both mental and physical, including terminal illness, through intense therapy sessions called "processing" ('auditing' in Scientology).
And yes, the central tenets also revolve around the idea of mankind having originated as pure, enlightened space beings that have become trapped in primitive flesh suits.
No wonder, then, that The Master is played as black comedy. But, laughs come at a price as Paul Thomas Anderson continues the novelistic pacing and uncomfortable studies of unlikeable characters from his previous movies.
In a typical film, Phoenix's Freddie Quell would be the audience's guide as he is sucked into Dodd's strange world. But, Freddie is a violent, sex-obsessed misfit, treating a female sand sculpture as his sex toy and whose home-made hooch is produced from torpedo oil, paint thinner and whatever else will sooth the demons in his head - and may be responsible for at least one death.
After a fragmented, hard-to-grasp opening act, it's a relief when Quell stows away aboard Dodd's ship and Hoffman's big, bold, snake oil salesman performance is unleashed.
Anderson is unafraid to play out lengthy sequences of therapy sessions in unbroken takes and, with Hoffman and Phoenix both 100% committed, The Master will leave some audiences drained. But the writer/director replicates the sensation of cult life, the repetition and constant probing chipping away at the will to resist.
Not that Anderson seems taken with Scientology. Galaxy-sized holes in Dodd's theories repeatedly surface - in one standout scene a scientist takes him to task and in another a follower innocently points out a disturbing flaw in his latest theory. The great man's subsequent anger merely proves the point and brings him closer to Freddie, the animal he wishes to civilise.
The Master would be prime Oscar bait if not for Scientology being Hollywood's unofficial religion, and it will be fascinating to see if either lead gets a Best Actor nod.
Hoffman is allowed to showboat, but turns in a layered performance, echoing both Orson Welles in Citizen Kane and Burt Lancaster in Elmer Gantry.
Phoenix, gaunt faced, hunched-shoulders and awkward gait, is a million miles away from his Oscar nominated turn as Johnny Cash, in a performance that owes more to Ralph Fiennes in David Cronenberg's Spider.
But, proving this movie is not just a boy's club, Amy Adams sloughs off her nice girl image as Dodd's zealous wife, her Lady Macbeth showcase a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress noms.
What does The Master actually amount to? A critique of America's obsession with easy-answers philosophy, or a fascinating study of the country emerging stronger but shaken from the horrors of World War 2? Or that strong leaders with outlandish theories will be popular whatever the time or place?
The answer is up to audiences, but this is brave, fiery filmmaking; often beautiful to look at it in its evocation of 50s America, but unnerving in marvellously subtle ways.
Unlike its subject, The Master doesn't toss out easy answers, but it poses terrific questions.