With his last movie 'There Will Be Blood' Paul Thomas Anderson established himself as the darling of the critical establishment, with it's deep, dark themes intense acting and haunting score making for a cinematic experience like little else.
Now the director returns with the master, a film that has had critics shuddering with anticipation due to its director, cast and it's obvious similarities in theme to the events surrounding the beginnings of Scientology.
Yet anyone expecting an exposé or hatchet job will be sorely disappointed, as for Anderson the narrative and cinematic experience still takes precedence over the magnifying the subject.
As the director said, although no one quite believed, this isn't a movie about Tom Cruise’s religion, despite it obviously drawing on it as its source.
We start with a troubled ex-Navy man Freddie Quell struggling with his own psychological frailties, hooked on a toxic alcoholic cocktail of his own concoction and drifting across the US like an evil ‘On The Road’ character.
Freddie is in many ways a deeply unpleasant individual; violent, sex-obsessed and self pitying over his own mistakes. When he meets a mysterious man named Lanacaster Dodd after stowing away on a ship moored for a party, his life though changes forever.
Dodd, a strange 'philosopher'-cum-religious leader who wants to study and cure him, strikes up a rapport with Freddie. With his psychological problems laid bare by Dodd’s harsh interrogation and genial manner, the wastrel is only too happy to submit to salvation, even if Dodd’s theories about past lives sound more than a little bizarre, while his fondness for Freddie's pain-stripping drinks hint at someone less than all there.
Yet it's not just a love of hooch that brings the two together, unlike 'There Will Be Blood', which very much focused on its lead Daniel Plainview, 'The Master' is in some ways a love story between the two men, who share a strange confidence in themselves that masks deep underlying problems.
Dodd the well-educated writer shows it with his intellectual bombast and sensitivity to criticism, Quell is disarmed by Dodd but is perfectly capable of manipulation and violence to those weaker than him.
Phoenix and Hoffman go about delivering two masterful performances to convey this, with Phoenix perfectly capturing a man one inch away from the edge, capable of channelling his madness into productivity when his ends require it.
Hoffman on the others and leaps about from convincing genius to sad deluded dreamer, from leader of men to thin skinned bully.
If the film does have a takedown of Scientology then it is the subtle unpicking of the ludicrousness of Dodd's professed worldview, with 'The Master' taking us through the process of Dodd's cult, showing us the early benefits of submitting to this strange new family alongside their corruption.
Dodd's misuse of perfectly respectable scientific and philosophical doubt to convince otherwise sane individuals and himself of fantastical beliefs, isn't as ridiculous as their conclusion. He's not portrayed as an obvious fraud but a clever individual whose own egotism leads him to be entranced by belief in his own reasoning, believeing that if anything might be the truth then it might as well be the brand of nonsense that casts him as the new messiah.
Bizarrely, given his status as an utter fraud, controlling tendencies and the historical figure he is surely partly based on, one does at times feel sympathy for Dodd, his wife (Amy Adams) sensibly refusing to let her husband use his status as the head of a cultish organisation to indulge in orgies, but more through ambition than moral objection.
His relationship with Freddie deteriorates, although despite occasional bouts of violence and drunkeness, his pupil so loyal that he'll perform maddening tasks like walking up and down a room thousands of times to prove devotion, with Dodd imposing the sort of sinister interrogation one imagines is found in Guantanamo Bay.
We get a sense though that Freddie gets Dodd in a way that others don't; he understands the power of suggestion and charisma that pulls in followers more profoundly than others.
If there's a problem with the film, it's that true to form there are no real answers; no one is a hero or villain, everyone is too flawed and it makes for a movie that is at times an even less easy watch than the director's previous work.
However Anderson also maintains the same mesmeric film making that made ‘There Will Be Blood’ such a classic, with Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood again providing a score that draws you in, and the director again using his talents to add to scenes a faded claustrophobia that frames the actors and their characters perfectly.
In the end it's impossible to not talk about Scientology and 'The Master', but what makes the director’s latest effort compelling are not those similarities, but the very human story of two strange characters, living off each other’s own insecurities and madness, a mix that although difficult, is occasionally is as powerful as Freddie’s paint-thinner fuelled aperitifs.