It pains me that I have to put out a review for The Master so soon after seeing it. I want to think about this film for another hundred years, because that’s how long I feel it might take me to fully grasp all of it. Paul Thomas Anderson has become the master (sorry) of hypnotic ambiguity. This is an achingly beautiful, eerie, unshakeable piece of work.

The film is set in the postwar afterglow of 1950 America. Joaquin Pheonix plays Freddie Quell, a Navy veteran careening violently through different jobs and cities, eventually ending up by happenstance on a boat conveying a small cult across the ocean. This cult, The Cause, is led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an author / “philosopher” who takes a shine to Freddie. Freddie joins The Cause, and watches as it begins to expand in popularity, even as he houses doubts about the truth of its odd tenets and Dodd’s questionable sincerity.

Pheonix is utterly phenomenal here. One of Dodd’s big buzz phrases is that “man is not an animal,” but Freddie seems made to disprove that statement. He’s a stumbling id, seemingly unable to control any of his base instincts. He quaffs seemingly any kind of liquid he can get his hands on (including lysol and paint thinner) and destroys whatever is near at the slightest provocation. Pheonix has the look of a tortured wolf in his eye, and lurches about with a zombie-like hunch, always on the prowl for something to punch or hump. He’s magnetic in the way that an unstable reaction can be.

Hoffman, on the other hand, is just plain magnetic. It’s completely believable that people follow Lancaster Dodd, that they willingly and lovingly call him “Master.” He’s so genial and fatherly that the half-baked ideas about psychiatric mental time travel that tumble out of his mouth sound almost plausible. Dodd might be a fraud, or he might be delusional, or somewhere in between. Either way, he and Freddie are of a kind, because there’s a beastliness lurking inside him as well. Hoffman makes him a controlled, suave gentleman up until he’s pushed too far, usually by someone questioning too much, and then he reveals a nastiness inside that’s truly frightening.

Freddie and Dodd have possibly the strangest relationship in a film this year. Dodd is honestly trying to help Freddie quash his demons, having grown fond of both him and his unusual alcoholic concoctions. And Freddie finds in Dodd and The Cause a sense of belonging that he’s been lacking for some time, since before the war, at least. Dodd treats Freddie like he’s a dog, even calling him “good boy” at several points and once greeting him with on-the-ground play-roughhousing (which certainly puts his title, and the title of the film, in an interesting light). And Freddie almost seems content to play the role. But Freddie’s volatility makes him a liability in the long run, and thus his days with The Cause are numbered.

The Master is an epic of the personal. It’s not really much of a challenge to Scientology; while Dodd and The Cause are clearly based in part on L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics, this isn’t the focus, but a backdrop to the relationship between two men. Freddie is a starved questor for meaning, and Dodd is offering him answers, but are they enough to quell (possible meaning in Freddie’s last name?) his seething nature? Freddie could be a stand-in for all humanity, and Dodd for all religion. But that’s just one possible interpretation. Like I said, I still feel like I have yet to scratch the surface of what this film has to offer in terms of symbolism.

Anderson works through obtuse scenes set on a sprawling, loose narrative arc. There is something of a plot in the way The Cause gradually accumulates power, but its importance fades as it goes on. The real significance lies in how the film opens up its two main characters’ heads. It’s extremely deliberate and sometimes possibly confusing, but always riveting.

A big factor in this is the sheer beauty on display. The Master is the first feature film in decades shot on 70mm gauge, and it looks gobsmackingly gorgeous. You could cut any given shot out of it, frame it, and put it on your wall. The sea is a heartbreaking sapphire, the desert is a stark forever, and the various interiors are wonderfully stately. Outside of the nature/world documentary Samsara (also filmed in 70mm), there won’t be a better-looking movie this year.

Johnny Greenwood, who also collaborated with Anderson on There Will Be Blood, provides a perfect score. It’s full of strange, dissonant sounds that heighten the off-kilter atmosphere, putting us even more inside Freddie Quell’s alcohol-and-possibly-mental-illness-warped mindset.

There’s so much more to be said about The Master. I haven’t even touched Amy Adams’ terrific performance as Peggy, Dodd’s wife, who acts as the controlling ego to the trio. Nor have I been able to mention how funny the movie is, how often it strikes the best note of self-aware absurdity. There are reams of big and small ideas, often packed into single scenes, that lie in this film, waiting to be dissected and discussed. This is another masterpiece (for lack of a less on-the-nose descriptor) from Paul Thomas Anderson.