Grade: B+

Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to “There Will Be Blood” will inevitably be known as the Scientology film, and it does indeed inhabit the world surrounding a self-styled, L. Ron Hubbard-like “prophet” who’s establishing a cult-like movement during the early 1950s. But though Philip Seymour Hoffman offers a fascinatingly intense performance as the obsessive, manipulative, volatile Lancaster Dodd, as he’s called, and obviously relishes the grandiloquent language Anderson’s provided him with, he and his program, here referred to as The Cause, aren’t really what “The Master” is about. Its focus is instead on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled WWII vet whom Dodd brings into his orbit, with disconcertingly uneven results.

Phoenix, returning to admitted acting after the puckish performance art of “I’m Still Here,” gives a riveting performance as Quell, from the initial sequences of his strange antics on a Pacific beach during the war, which even his randy shipmates look on with shock, through his break with Dodd in England years later. Hunched over, squinting, with a tendency to hold his arms at his hips in an old-man pose, he brings the tormented, unpredictable ex-sailor to unsettling life, exploding at an instant from quiet menace to rage. After the war we see him as a portrait photographer in a department store, ogling the floor model but abruptly attacking a customer, an obviously well-heeled businessman, after which he takes a menial job as a farm worker. After an incident involving another laborer who falls ill from a slug of Freddie’s homemade hooch, which he distills from anything at hand, he dashes away to escape a beating and winds up in a drunken stupor on a yacht taking Dodd and his bevy of followers through the Panama Canal to New York.

The two immediately hit it off. It’s fairly easy to see why in Quell’s case—he’s both puzzled and awed by the strange, pontificating Dodd, and is in desperate need of some guidance. But why should the latter effectively adopt Quell? In part it’s because he takes to Freddie’s brewing expertise. But one gets the feeling that it’s really because Quell is the ultimate challenge: if Dodd can work his salesman’s magic on Freddie, can anybody be beyond his reach? (Of course, Dodd might also have an inkling of the fact that Quell can serve as a private enforcer, spontaneously going off on those who disrespect his mentor.)

That’s demonstrated in a scene after their arrival in New York, when Dodd’s the focus of attention at a party where he’s challenged by a outspoken skeptic (Christopher Evan Welch), whom Freddie later assaults. But that sequence also shows Dodd’s quick temper, too, when he snaps back at his questioner with a venom that spurs Quell on. He just controls it better—though he has another outburst later on, this time with a long-time supporter who questions the “evolution” of his movement.

What “The Master” becomes from this point is an episodic, impressionistic account of the relationship between the two men, as Dodd’s cagey wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and sons—one devoted to his father, the other blithely dismissive of him—look on. There are occasional glimpses of Quell’s past, in particular his doomed infatuation with a young girl (Madison Beaty), but these episodes are more dreamlike (as are depictions of his sexual longings) than explanatory. Nor is Dodd’s history revealed: he arrives on the scene fully formed, and really changes little, his ambition well established by the first frame in which he appears.

Rather than a symphony with a beginning, middle and end, in fact, the film is really more a cinematic theme and variations, composed primarily of sequences in which Dodd seeks to induct Freddie fully into the movement through a series of exercises (including a question-and-answer session called processing that looks suspiciously like Scientologist auditing) and Quell is alternately drawn in and repulsed. The climax of this macabre dance comes in a beautifully composed jailhouse scene, when Dodd’s been hauled in for misappropriation of funds and Freddie for going crazy trying to prevent his arrest. As Dodd stands quietly watching, leaning against the bunk beds, the shackled Quell literally tears his cell apart, and when Dodd berates him for giving in to his animal drives, Freddie challenges his teachings as mere invention. It’s a bravura moment for both actors, who are equally histrionic, but Phoenix is in full-throated mode (as Hoffman was in “Capote”) while Hoffman is more subtly seductive.

The sequence is a high point of “The Master,” showing the brilliance of the two stars as well as Anderson’s in conception and composition. But it’s also indicative of the film’s major problem—it repeats essentially the same point over and over, and though the restatements build to the jailhouse tornado, as a whole the picture doesn’t rise to the revelatory close one longs for. Indeed, it ends more in obliqueness and ambiguity which, though perhaps thematically impressive, aren’t dramatically as satisfying as you might wish.

But even a flawed Anderson film is more interesting than most directors’ unequivocal triumphs. And this one is as beautifully produced as any of them. Though the supporting cast, even Adams, is largely overshadowed by Phoenix and Hoffman, the crew contribute work of a quality it’s impossible to ignore. Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s widescreen cinematography is exquisite, capturing every nuance of period detail in the production design of Jack Fisk and David Crank, John P. Goldsmith’s set design, Amy Wells’s set decoration and Mark Bridges’ costume design. Editors Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty give the performances time to breathe without sacrificing forward motion, and Jonny Greenwood’s score adds to the sense of dislocation Freddie represents.

Though it doesn’t possess the single-minded intensity of “There Will Be Blood,” this is obviously a masterly piece of filmmaking. And like “Blood,” it provides a stage for two extraordinary performances.