Freddie Quell is a mess. Fighting in World War II has left him with problems – with drink, with sex, and with people in general.

His erratic, violent behaviour has ensured he can’t keep a job for long – he has a habit of losing control and attacking customers. It is after one such outburst that he groggily awakes on a boat hired by Lancaster Dodd, the charismatic leader of a movement called “The Cause”. Freddie is quickly accepted by Dodd’s family and friends, though Dodd’s wife, Peggy, remains suspicious of him.

Dodd submits Freddie to tests called “processing”, through which he aims to rid Freddie of the demons of his past lives, which the movement purports to be the cause of the problems in his current life. Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Members of the Church of Scientology undergo “auditing” to rid themselves of bad experiences in their past lives, so that they may become “clear”. Despite this glaring similarity, the production company of The Master were quick to dispel any rumours that the picture was based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, probably so as not to annoy any of the movement’s famous members.

The exact details of “The Cause” are never fully explained, and perpetually shift and change. Is Dodd cynically making it all up as he goes along, or does he genuinely believe what he is saying? The frequent unexplained forays into the surreal means it is sometimes hard to figure out if the events on screen are happening to all the characters, or just in Freddie’s head. Nevertheless, as events progress and it becomes clear that Dodd is not all that he seems, Freddie has to decide whether he is better off in or out.

Joaquin Phoenix is completely transformed as Freddie Quell, most notably in his physicality – he squints, sneers, and walks with rounded, hunched shoulders; graceless, ungainly. Phoenix’ portrayal ensures that Freddie stays in a sort of character limbo: it’s hard to hate him, but equally as hard to like him. His presence is unnerving to both the audience and the other characters. What does Dodd see in him, and why can’t anybody else see it? It’s possible that Dodd is just as sick as Freddie, as Philip Seymour-Hoffman’s brilliant, ever-so-slightly unhinged portrayal of the titular Master suggests. Amy Adams, prim and proper as Dodd’s latest wife, takes us out of the insular world of Dodd and Freddie and reminds us of the real world dangers that await the movement. “The only way to defend ourselves is to attack,” she says quietly, telling us more about the mindset of the movement’s followers than anything uttered by Dodd himself. 

The Masterhas “Oscar-bait” written all over it. For one thing, it was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who is responsible for the Oscar-winning There Will Be Blood amongst many other grown-up-thinky-type films. For another, it stars two previous Oscar nominees (Adams and Phoenix) and one Oscar winner (Hoffman). Lastly, by the looks of their track record, a film this perplexing, engrossing, and occasionally alienating cannot fail to grab the attention of Oscar voters.

But don’t let that last sentence discourage you. You should see The Master, if only to remind yourself that our experiences are not perfectly packaged with a neat and clear beginning, middle and end, and films can reflect this, sometimes. The Master is one of those films you will Wikipedia to make sure you have the plot right, but probably shouldn’t. Accept it.