For a movie with not a lot of plot, or much of a point, The Master is nevertheless mesmerizing, especially in its first half. Its central pleasures are the all-stops-out performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman and, especially, Joaquin Phoenix—roaring back from a two-year layoff following the very strange mock doc I’m Still Here. Even after the picture has drifted off into the land of whatever, Phoenix remains an electrifying presence.

The film has been preceded by much speculation that it would be an exposé of L. Ron Hubbard, the late concocter of Scientology. It does score a number of telling points in that regard, through its thin scrim of fiction, and one can easily imagine Hubbard’s hyper-touchy heirs being ticked off. But the movie’s focus is firmly on Phoenix’s character, Freddie Quell, a whackjob drifter who blunders into the orbit of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), a bluff, jovial spiritual hustler whose book, The Cause—a declaration that all mental torments can be traced back into the womb, and beyond—is attracting many followers. (The movie is set in 1950, the year that Hubbard published Dianetics, the root text of Scientology.) 

The beginning of the film belongs to Phoenix. His Freddie is a bony, unstable character with a twisted grimace that serves as a smile and a perpetual squint—as if the world were too painfully bright a place for wide-eyed witness. We see him mustering out of the Navy at the end of World War II, and then hospitalized for psychiatric treatment. He is obsessed with sex; on a beach we see him masturbating into the ocean. He lands a job as a photographer in a department store, then flees it after a nasty fight with a customer. (A memorably alarming scene.)

In San Francisco, he stows away on a big pleasure boat. Its “commander” is Lancaster Dodd, and its passengers his West Coast followers. Freddie is discovered and brought into Dodd’s presence. “The Master,” as he’s called, asks Freddie if he’d “care for some informal processing.” He begins: “Do you linger at bus stations for pleasure? Do your past failures bother you? Do you like to be told what to do?” It’s a strange ritual, but Freddie, an empty vessel, feels himself filling up.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights) was quoted as saying at the recent Toronto International Film Festival that Dodd’s group is not intended to be seen as a cult. (Given the famously litigious nature of the Church of Scientology, such a preemptive statement was surely prudent.) But the cult trappings are clear: the blind adoration of the leader, the love-bombing interspersed with hostile interrogation, the wearing-down of the new recruit in order that he be rebuilt. Dodd styles himself a writer, philosopher, and nuclear scientist. He says he believes that “our spirits exist in many vessels through time,” and that our emotional pains are the result of space-invader “implants…from millions of years ago.” He claims that his program can dispel all such problems, as well as cure diseases and end war and poverty. On the other hand, Dodd’s son, Val (Jesse Plemons), tells Freddie, “He’s making this up as he goes along.”

Hoffman, in his roomy ’50s suits and trim little mustache, is predictably terrific at projecting the outsize charisma that would draw believers to such a bizarre spiel—and also at conveying the fury that boils beneath his genial façade. Amy Adams, playing Dodd’s attentive wife, Peggy, brings off a similarly precise balancing act: Peggy is sweet and welcoming at first, but as the film proceeds, there are gathering flashes of her angry fanaticism. (“We have to attack,” she tells her husband. “We can never dominate our environment unless we attack.”)

The movie also has a gorgeous score by Jonny Greenwood—a river of thrumming bass strings and eerie synthetic tinklings that courses through just about every scene. And this is a picture that’s all about scenes. There’s a heartbreaking interlude in which Freddie visits the house where an old girlfriend once lived. And the scene in which we see Dodd and Peggy, shot from behind at a bathroom sink, is an audacious conception: they’re simply talking, but slowly we realize that she’s also patiently releasing his precious bodily fluids.

If only all this bravura filmmaking took us somewhere. And if only all of it made sense. There’s a living-room scene in which Dodd is cheerily singing for a group of followers—and suddenly all of the women on hand turn naked. Why? There’s also a long motorbiking passage in the Arizona desert whose import eluded me entirely.

The Master is a movie for cinephiles. The performances, the unique directorial rhythms, and the glorious photography (by Mihai Malaimare Jr., most noted for his work on the latter-day films of Francis Ford Coppola) are intoxicatingly fine. At the end, though, less-committed auditors may wonder why such a long trip (two hours and 17 minutes) was required only to dump us back where we started out, with so little enlightenment provided along the way.