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"Just tell me something that's true!"

It's the line that Joaquin Phoenix bellows at the end of a trailer for The Master and it's a moment that never made it into the final film, yet it encapsulates what the movie is all about.

The Master is about a follower and his leader: two characters orbiting each other. At times, their positions seem almost to reverse, but ultimately the film explores the attraction and the physics of personalities who pull us in.

In the beginning, we meet Freddie Quell (Phoenix). He's seen action in the Pacific during the Second World War and, although he shrugs off any suggestion of psychological damage, he is deeply shaken and unsettled. It's an incredibly physical performance, with Phoenix sometimes contorting his neck as if he's straining to escape his body. In an era of conservatism and conformity, Quell is a free radical: drunk on his homemade bathtub booze and careening from one job to another.

The MasterAmy Adams, left, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, centre, and Ambyr Childers, right, in a still from The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. (The Weinstein Company)

After one such washout, he happens upon a party taking place on a docked cruise ship. He sneaks on board and encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is an author, a scientist, a philosopher, etc. (You've surely seen this speech in the trailer). Instantly, Dodd is the definitive host who takes a liking to the stowaway with the sad-eyed sneer.

Soon, however, Quell is being indoctrinated into The Cause, Dodd's movement that helps rid his followers of negative energy and animalistic tendencies. By his side are his stern but supportive wife Peggy (played with verve by Amy Adams), his recently married daughter (Ambyr Childers) and his somewhat-less-supportive son (Jesse Plemons).

There's been much talk about Dodd's character and comparisons to the real-life Church of Scientology. After seeing The Master, it's obvious that Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, were very much at the root of Hoffman's character. The language, the focus on past lives, regression, time scales in the trillions and Dodd's intimate "processing" sessions are all extremely familiar.

Anderson revealed he'd read about Hubbard while researching the 1950s for the film and even went so far as to screen The Master for Scientology's most famous celebrity.

Though Scientologists might not be enjoying in this spotlight, the comparison is just a smokescreen for the main event: two actors in the roles of their lives.

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The Master marks Phoenix's return to the screen since his performance art sabbatical, but what he seemed to draw from that experience is the confidence to dig even deeper into his characters. The fearlessness we saw on display in I'm Still Here returns in spades with The Master, where Phoenix also dives right in. Co-star Adams described working with him as "intense," though at times "possessed" might be the apt term.

Quell is someone who is utterly lost and looking for help, a lifeline and some truth. Dodd appears as the saviour he's been longing for. Still, behind Quell's coal black eyes, he's no fool. As he grips onto his lifeline ever tighter, we sense he's the one who truly sees what's behind the emperor's robes.

The Master is masterful on so many levels. There's its glorious, light-soaked cinematography (shot on 65mm). There are the full-frame close-ups that let us watch, for instance, a single tear slide down Quell's nose. If the film is guilty of anything, it's director Paul Thomas Anderson's indulgence of circling around his two leads again and again, re-examining the attraction between the pair of searchers.

While in some ways I could do without the film's final chapter in Britain, for instance, I repeatedly find myself picturing that single tear as it inches down Freddie's face as Dodd sings On a Slow Boat to China. The Master is a beguiling riddle of a film worth puzzling over.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5

The MasterJoaquin Phoenix, left, and Philip Seymour Hoffman star in The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. (Phil Bray/The Weinstein Company)

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