Is 'The Master' a must-see? Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar buzz, Scientology controversy, and other things to know

the-master-amy-adams-philip-seymour-hoffman-ambyr-childers-the-weinstein-company.jpgHollywood's annual award season begins in earnest with today's limited release of "The Master," starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams. It's the first time paying audiences will get a look at the latest idiosyncratic epic from "Boogie Nights" and "There Will Be Blood" director Paul Thomas Anderson.

While it remains to be seen if the film can captivate mainstream audiences, "The Master" arrives in theaters with massive buzz among serious film fans and awards pundits. Part of that has to do with its Oscar-friendly pedigree -- Hoffman is a three-time nominee and Best Actor winner for 2005's "Capote," the same year Phoenix received his second nomination (for "Walk the Line"); Adams also has three previous nominations, while Anderson has five -- and a lot of it simply has to do with Anderson's growing reputation as one of the top filmmakers working today.

Zap2it attended an early screening to bring you five things you should know about one of the fall's buzziest movies:

1) It's not really about Scientology

Although there has been a significant amount of chatter over the years about the film having overt connections to Scientology and founder L. Ron Hubbard, Anderson acknowledges only a very loose inspirational thread between Hubbard and Hoffman's character Lancaster Dodd, the founder of a cult called The Cause. Anderson wasn't interested in making any sort of bio-pic about Hubbard or expose about Scientology, and while certain elements of The Cause have similarities (Dodd invents a psychological interview technique called "processing," not that different from Scientology's auditing), "The Master" is a character study about two completely fictional men. So even if Anderson's "Magnolia" star Tom Cruise reportedly has issues with some scenes, it's doubtful audiences are going to walk away thinking about Scientology at all.

2) Critics love it

"The Master" has one of the highest scores of the year so far on Metacritic.com and its Rotten Tomatoes rating is also impressive. Major influencers like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and The Hollywood Reporter gave it flat out raves, with both NYT and EW specifically using the phrase "great movie."

3) The awards buzz is more than hot air

Not only are the reviews rock solid, but "The Master" has already racked up pre-release awards in its debut at the recent Venice International Film Festival. Anderson received the fest's Silver Lion for Best Director, and Phoenix and Hoffman shared the Volpi Cup for Best Actor. There were reports the Venice fest jury also wanted to give the movie the top prize, a Golden Lion (the equivalent of Best Picture), but rules prohibited them from awarding one movie too many prizes.

4) The stars are incredible, but the ensemble goes deep

There's a reason Phoenix and Hoffman won that prize at Venice and are early favorites for Oscar nominations next year. Phoenix's feral, wildly unpredictable performance as damaged WWII veteran Freddie Quell is easily one of the finest and most demanding of his career. If you remember when it seemed like Phoenix had totally lost his mind during the filming of elaborate hoax movie "I'm Still Here," you know how committed the actor can be to his role. That's completely on display in "The Master," as Phoenix frighteningly evokes a lost soul with severe psychological issues.

Hoffman is every bit his equal as the more calm and controlled Dodd. It's only when the cracks begin to show under Dodd's immaculate surface, you realize the two men may not be quite as different as they appear. Adams too is likely to land another Oscar nomination in the pivotal role of Dodd's wife, another unique character on her impressive resume. This time out the warm and cheerful actress uses her natural likability to mask an underlying darkness, and the result is chilling.

The supporting cast also includes Oscar nominee Laura Dern as a faithful follower of Dodd's, Jesse Plemmons of "Friday Night Lights" and "Breaking Bad" as Dodd's blunt talking son, "All My Children's" Ambyr Childers as Dodd's devoted daughter and "The Pacific's" Rami Malek as her slightly creepy newlywed husband.

5) We're not gonna lie, it's a challenging movie to watch

Even the most rabid supporters of "The Master" will admit it's a tough movie to watch and -- in the words of the film -- process. The ending in particular is incredibly vague. If you prefer stories wrapped up with a bow, you'll be frustrated. But if you're open to something more daring -- something very much along the lines of Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" -- "The Master" is a must-see. And if you live in one of the cities where the film is screening in the rare 70mm format, that's definitely the way to check it out.

Watch the trailer for "The Master," which opens in additional cities next weekend, below:

Photo/Video credit: The Weinstein Company
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