First, let's get one thing clear: Those who think The Master isn't channeling the controversial teachings of L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology are kidding themselves. Having said that, Hubbard or Scientoloy isn't mentioned once in this fictional tale of a charismatic spellbinder.
Second, make certain that The Master is near the top of your list of must-see films of 2012. It's a dense, smart and beautiful drama that considers redemption, obsession and manipulation. And in the hands of director Paul Thomas Anderson, the film soars. Anderson is the true master here.
Third, Philip Seymour Hoffman's and Joaquin Phoenix's performances are singularly exacting yet it's impossible to distinguish one's greatness from the other. This is one of the best written and acted screen duos in generations. Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, self-professed scientist, philosopher and historian. Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a short-fused World War II veteran who is clinging to his last threads of sanity. Fireworks ensue when the two meet, and they never stop blazing.
Visually stunning and narratively brilliant, my sense is that The Master is one of those rare films that will achieve increasing affection with subsequent viewings.