"I don't think Freddie's as committed to the Cause as the Cause is to him," someone tells the title character in "The Master."

It sounds menacing. So does this, said to Freddie by the Master's wife: "This is something you do for a billion years or not at all."

And yet, these ominous lines pack no emotional punch. It's a mystery bigger than any in the murky film "The Master." The words are uttered by talented actors. We've gotten to know the endangered Freddie very well. We know what's at stake, for him and for the Cause. Yet "The Master" doesn't give us enough reason to care.

On screen
'The Master'
2.5 out of 4 stars
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rated: R for sexual content, graphic nudity, and language
Running time: 137 minutes

Paul Thomas Anderson's first film since his 2007 masterpiece, "There Will Be Blood," is unquestionably carefully crafted. The first film since Kenneth Branagh's 1996 "Hamlet" to be made in 65mm, it's visually stunning. And the story is more than engrossing, all through its running time.

And yet there's something missing. A heart? A soul? It's a strange thing to say about a movie whose title character says he aims to unlock the deepest secrets of humanity. Is also ambitious beyond its means. It's a well-told story -- but, sadly, not much more.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the title character, known for the first hour of the film as Lancaster Dodd. He's a thinker who's written a book that's spurred a movement; both are called "The Cause." He's also a philosopher and a theoretical physicist. At least, that's what he tells Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) when they first meet in 1950, adding, "But above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, like you."

Dodd is nothing like Freddie, of course, except in his love for the bottle. The older man takes on the younger first as a sort of demon mixologist -- paint thinner is one of the favored ingredients in Freddie's chemical concoctions -- and then, as Dodd describes him, as a "guinea pig and protege." The angry young man whose worst war wounds turn out to be in his head -- but are very real -- holds an inexplicable appeal for Dodd. Freddie is at first skeptical of the cultish Cause. But as Dodd's strange methods -- which share more than a passing resemblance to those of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology -- begin to help Freddie, the men grow close, and it's soon unclear which man needs the other more.

Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood has written a haunting score to accompany this movie that's as larger than life as its title character. Hoffman and Phoenix are at the top of their game -- given what little they really have to work with. For all the arty elements here, one leaves the theater feeling this film was strangely empty.

You might say "The Master" is a character study -- not of the title character, but of the soldier returned from war, but unable to call this place home anymore. That explains the movie's sometimes slow pace, better thought of as deliberate. But it doesn't give us a reason to excuse a great director's new lack of substance, which is impossible to ignore.