There is a great and genuinely frightening moment in Paul Thomas Anderson's eagerly awaited "The Master." It is one of the truly great film moments of the young millennium.

Cult leader Lancaster Dodd and his alcoholic, wildly unstable enforcer are arrested and marched off to jail in handcuffs: Dodd for fraud, his enforcer for punching out cops while trying to stop his master's arrest.

They are put into adjacent jail cells, Dodd on the right side of the screen, his brawling follower on the left. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd; Joaquin Phoenix plays his would-be protector, Freddie Quell.

Dodd maintains the studied cool of a pampered man of means. He knows that money, even if it is not his own, will protect him. No doubt a lawyer will shortly be on the way.

Quell knows no such thing. He erupts, even though his hands are still cuffed behind his back. With his head, he batters the underside of the top bunk in the cell. With his right foot, he stomps on the lip of the toilet so violently the porcelain crumbles into shards.

You won't be terrified of it now, because almost everyone who has reviewed the film since its showing at the Venice and Toronto film festivals has mentioned it. But be assured - it will still get to you.

I didn't know it was coming and found it genuinely terrifying. And I am almost never terrified by movies - certainly not by an actor's violent performance.

I was at "The Master." Phoenix in this movie gives one of the greatest performances in American movies. It is the long-delayed fulfillment of things Marlon Brando first brought to the screen in the postwar, early 1950s, the period in which "The Master" is set.

It is also the fulfillment of everything we came to understand about Phoenix from "I'm Still Here," the 2010 hoax mockumentary about Phoenix abandoning acting to become a rapper. It was, in the deepest sense, not a hoax at all, i.e., it was a gesture of the most genuine and most profound alienation from conventional moviedom we've seen.

Phoenix is, to be sure, a polite young man. But when you watch him in that jail cell - genuinely, physically violent - you are seeing something utterly different from the artful pretending of actors in most American movies.

It is, for a few seconds, real fury, summoned by an actor whose alienation from convention is so far beyond everyone else that it puts it into sharp relief.

There are, of course, stage actors - whole companies of them (Chicago's Steppenwolf) - legendary for such performing fury. It is another matter entirely on film.

You know the kind of separateness I'm talking about when you see it - Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight," Daniel Day-Lewis in Anderson's last film "There Will Be Blood" as well as Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York." (It is Day-Lewis who was Steven Spielberg's preternaturally perfect choice to play Abraham Lincoln in his upcoming film.) We could, at this moment, start talking Oscar nominations here but, quite frankly, the kind of performance I'm talking about ought to be way beyond the politics and manipulated sentiment of Academy Award popularity.

It isn't only that violent moment that defines what Phoenix does in "The Master." It is, I think, the greatest performance by an actor as an unrecovered alcoholic since Jack Lemmon in 1962's "Days of Wine and Roses."

With his whippet-lean physique, scarred upper lip and perpetually concave, stoop-shouldered posture in "The Master," Phoenix's Quell is like a human question mark. He's shaped like one, as he walks. And everything he says or does contains an element of mystery and instability.

Quell doesn't just drink alcohol. He learned in the war to mix it with everything he can find that might up the octane - paint thinner, Lysol, you name it.

He doesn't want to merely get drunk, he wants to alter consciousness, if not obliterate it. He's a proto-junkie, a classic addictive personality who would have been perfectly at home in the late '60s and early '70s.

In the late '40s and early '50s, he's too violent, too sex-obsessed and too hopelessly alienated from conventional life to hold a job for long. When he goes to sleep off his drunk one night on a yacht where there had been a party for Lancaster Dodd, he falls into the hands of a man who deals in human question marks.

Dodd has all the answers. They're all B.S., of course. His own son admits, at one point, that Dodd is making it all up as he goes along. But he and his rigid, perfectly proper wife (played with palpable frost by Amy Adams) have created something called The Cause, to which they've attracted followers - wealthy and otherwise - who support them in the lifestyle of American grandees.

Dodd soon sees his drunken stowaway as his violent alter ago, the one who has no difficulty functioning in the world as an uncontrolled id.

Worth waiting for

Not that it needs to, but Phoenix's big moment justifies, all by itself, the fact that the film was, along with Spielberg's upcoming "Lincoln," the year's most excitedly anticipated.

It has never been a secret that Anderson loosely based "The Master" and The Cause on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but what this movie gives you is nothing even remotely historical or literal. It's about something more powerful. We're in Dostoevsky territory here, Joseph Conrad territory, with its "Secret Sharer" and "Heart of Darkness." We're seeing two men who each, somewhere within, know that the other is a secret part of himself. Each secretly loathes what the other reveals about himself. It proves to them reason is the most combustible thing of all. They're incapable of reason about each other.

One is a follower, ready at a second's notice to commit violence for his master's cause. The other is "The Master," whose made-up, ramshackle beliefs are enforced with brutal repetition and psychological conditioning right out of behaviorist B.F. Skinner.

The film we all expected "The Master" to be was one that might have courted libel troubles, if the Scientologists decided to be as litigious as one of their two most famous believers, Tom Cruise (the other is John Travolta).

It is, though, so much more powerful and elusive than that. It's a film to which you have to apply interpretive power, not one you can passively let wash over you.

It's about violent, damaged men looking for answers and the megalomaniacs who supply them through improvisation, even though they're worthless. It's also about wives of Lady Macbeth steel who use the most ignominious weaknesses of their husbands to maintain pivotal private power in an era that denied it to them publicly.

In any other film, Hoffman's performance as Dodd - whose combination of merry charm, philosophical fussiness and psychological weakness are perfect for a con man - would be the standout. No less superb is Adams as the wife who knows that her husband's other self - the id that has taken up residence in their house - is an ever-present danger to everything they have built out of postwar uncertainties and inchoate yearnings.

But this film belongs to two people - Anderson, who, after "Boogie Nights," "There Will Be Blood" and now this, has earned a place among our greatest filmmakers, and Phoenix, an actor whose total post-Brando alienation from our era of vapidity and fame has made him one of the most arresting onscreen presences in the history of American movies.

"The Master" is not a lovable film. I'm not even sure it's likable. It's not a film of warmth, assurance or easy answers. Such things are supplied by the world's "Masters" - the cult leaders of this world.

"The Master," like its extraordinary star, is a long question mark.

That is what makes it as great and memorable and unanswerable as it is.


4 stars (out of four)

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams

Director: ?Paul Thomas Anderson

Running time: ?138 minutes

Rating: R for language, nudity, sex and graphic violence.

The Lowdown: ?A charismatic postwar cult leader bonds with an alcoholic veteran whose unpredictable violence threatens his cause.