When the 2017 Oscar nominees were announced, one of the bigger surprises was the amount of love the Academy dished out for writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. In hindsight, maybe this should have been more obvious considering the Oscar-friendly pedigree (Anderson a.k.a. PTA), the acting phenom (Daniel Day-Lewis), the setting (1950s), and the subject matter (obsessive artists). I had no real desire to see Phantom Thread after enduring PTA’s last two movies. I strongly disliked Inherent Vice and The Master, to the point that when I read about the love for either I can only stare at my feet, shake my head, and hope one day these defenders of rambling, plotless, pointless navel-gazing will come to their better senses. While not nearly ascending to the heights of his early, propulsive, deeply felt works, Phantom Thread is for me a marked improvement as a PTA film experience and an intriguing study in toxic desire.
In 1950s post-war London, fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is famous for dressing movie stars, princesses, and the rich elite of the world. His sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), acts as his business manager and personal manager, including kicking out the old muses who have overstayed their welcome. After a day out in the country, Reynolds becomes instantly smitten with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a foreign waitress. He pulls Alma into his highly secluded world. She lives in the Woodcock offices and he summons her at all hours, caught up in the madness of inspiration. Alma is overjoyed by the attention and adoration from such a famous and brilliant artist. It’s the kind of feeling she doesn’t want to end, and when Reynolds begins to lose interest with her, Alma will fight however she can to stay longer in this new and exciting world.
While this doesn’t have nearly the same amount of plot in comparison to early PTA, Phantom Thread at least held my interest and felt like what I was watching mattered. The character dynamics were compelling. Reynolds is a puzzle and we’re side-by-side with Alma trying to figure him out, suss his moods, and analyze why he is the way he is and how best to compensate. It becomes something like a portrait of a Great Artist who doesn’t operate on the same social and interpersonal levels as the rest of us, leaving Alma fumbling for stability. A breakfast in silence can become a battle of wills on the sound design team (you’ll never notice the sound of bread scraping like ever before). It’s not quite the thorough character study that There Will Be Blood purported to be, but Day-Lewis is as reliable an anchor for a movie as you’ll get in cinema. I was especially fascinated by the role of his sister, Cyril. She’s the gatekeeper to a very private world and knows the precise routines and preferences of her very fussy brother. She doesn’t necessarily approve of his actions but she sees them out, though occasionally she has to be more of the responsible one of the pair. Cyril is his lifeline, enabler, and enforcer. She treats Alma as a visitor into their home, further magnifying her worry about eventually being replaced by another muse for Reynolds. This insecurity is what drives much of the film’s second half as Alma tries everything she knows to assert power and influence so that she will not be unceremoniously craved out of this new special life for herself.
At its core Phantom Thread is an exploration of the stubborn artistic process and the toxic relationship of chasing those mercurial, waning affections. It’s very easy to feel for Alma, a relative nobody plucked form obscurity and whisked away to a glamorous world of London’s fashion scene where she is the chief muse of a brilliant man. When he lays the full force of his attentions on her, it’s like feeling the warmth of the sun, and her world revolves around feeling that intensity. When his attention is elsewhere, Alma can feel lost and discarded, desperate to seek that warmth and fulfillment once more, though running into barriers because of Reynolds’ peculiar personal habits and demands. She plans a surprise romantic dinner that Reynolds resents, and he congratulates himself on the “gallantry” of eating his asparagus with butter instead of the salt he normally likes. Reynolds is a powerful figure who casts a powerful shadow. You feel for Alma as she tries again and again to find the exact formula for pleasing and comforting this obsessive man given to routines. She’s tying to crack the code back into Reynolds good graces. He’s an inscrutable force and one Alma is willing to genuflect to for his affections. Because of this dynamic, much of Phantom Thread is watching Alma try and fail to impress or win back the attentions of Reynolds, which is part fascinating and part humiliating. The film explores Reynolds’ history of burning through his shiny new muses, relying upon the iron-hearted determination of his sister to finally push out the discarded lovers/muses. For Reynolds, his muses follow the cyclical pattern of a love affair, the excitement and discovery of something new, the possibilities giving way to artistic breakthroughs, and then what once seemed en vogue is now yesterday’s old fashion.
Because of this tight narrative focus, the film does become repetitious in its second half, finding more ways to expound upon the same ideas already presented. Reynolds is a jerk. His process is of utmost importance and must not be altered. Alma is struggling to make herself more essential and less expendable in his orbit. She doesn’t want to end up like all the other prim women who have been elbowed out of the spotlight. She’s feisty and pushy and will challenge Reynolds, and this doesn’t usually work out well. While the strength of the acting never wavers, the plot does feel like it reaches a ceiling, which makes the film feel like it’s coasting for far too long (and it’s also far too long). It feels like Alma is fighting an unwinnable battle and after all her efforts she’ll just be another muse in a history of muses. That’s probably why Anderson gooses his third act with a thriller turn and with a specific plot device I’ve weirdly seen a lot in 2017. It feels like this plot turn is going to disrupt the cycle of Reynolds affections, and then as things begin reverting back to the old Reynolds, it all feels so hopelessly Sisyphean. And then, dear reader, the literal last few minutes almost save this entire movie’s lethargic second half. It’s a new turn that made me go, “Ohhhhh,” in interest, and it redefined the relationship and power dynamic between Alma and Reynolds in an intriguing way. It says a little something about the relationship between self-sacrifice and self-sabotage and how the power of giving can approach perverse levels of distorted self-fulfillment.
The biggest selling point of any movie with Daniel Day-Lewis is the man himself. He’s literally only been in four movies over the last decade, and in two of them he’s won Best Actor Oscars and was just nominated for another with Phantom Thread (Gary Oldman has that thing in the bag this year, though). The excellence of Day-Lewis is beyond dispute, and yet I would argue that Day-Lewis is pushed aside by the acting power of Krieg (A Most Wanted Man). This woman commands your attention enough that she can go toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis and win. She’s the worst at holding back her emotions and playing games, which makes her the most affecting to watch. When her romantic dinner goes badly, you can feel her reaching for reason, thinking out loud, her eyes glassy with uncertainty. When she’s speaking in an interview about her relationship with Reynolds, the warmth in Krieg radiates out from her. The other standout is Manville (Harlots) who does an incredible amount with mere looks. She can be withering. It’s a performance as controlled as Alma is uncontrolled, relying on the facade of calm to operate through a manufactured space of rules and expectations. And yes Day-Lewis is terrific. It’s also the first time he’s used his natural speaking voice in decades on screen.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest movie is about the world of fashion but it’s really about three characters jostling for understanding, attention, and control. We follow the tumultuous power dynamics of an artist-muse-lover relationship and the toxic implications it has on Alma as she struggles to maintain her position. The second half can get a bit repetitious and feel rudderless, but the eventual ending and wealth of great acting makes it an arguably justified journey. I lamented that Anderson was no longer making movies for me with the lurch he had taken with The Master and Inherent Vice in particular. He doesn’t have to make movies for me at all, but it was this sad realization that made me feel like I was undergoing a breakup with an eclectic artist I had loved tremendously in my younger days (Boogie Nights remains one of my favorites). Phantom Thread doesn’t exactly return things back to the way they used to be but it at least rights the ship, offering a mild course correction with a movie that is accessible and substantive. If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ last movie, at least it was better than Nine.
Nate’s Grade: B
This is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. It’s not because I’m torn over the film; no, it’s because this review will also serve as my break-up letter. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), we’re just moving in two different directions. We met when we were both young and headstrong. I enjoyed your early works Paul, but then somewhere around There Will be Blood, things changed. You didn’t seem like the PTA I had known to love. You became someone else, and your films represented this change, becoming plotless and laborious centerpieces on self-destructive men. Others raved to the heavens over Blood but it left me cold. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it’s just a phase. Then in 2012 came The Master, a pretentious and ultimately futile exercise anchored by the wrong choice for a main character. When I saw the early advertisements for Inherent Vice I got my hopes up. It looked like a weird and silly throwback, a crime caper that didn’t take itself so seriously. At last, I thought, my PTA has returned to me. After watching Inherent Vice, I can no longer deny the reality I have been ducking. My PTA is gone and he’s not coming back. We’ll always have Boogie Nights, Paul. It will still be one of my favorite films no matter what.
In the drug-fueled world of 1970 Los Angeles, stoner private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by one of his ex-girlfriends, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s in a bad place. The man she’s in love with, the wealthy real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is going to be conned. Mickey’s wife, and her boyfriend, is going to commit the guy to a mental hospital ward and take control of his empire. Then Shasta and Mickey go missing. Doc asks around, from his police detective contact named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), to an ex (Reese Witherspoon) who happens to be in the L.A. justice department, to a junkie (Jena Malone) with a fancy set of fake teeth thanks to a coked-out dentist (Martin Short) who may be a front for an Asian heroin cartel. Or maybe not. As more and more strange characters come into orbit, Doc’s life is placed in danger, and all he really wants to find out is whether his dear Shasta is safe or not.
Inherent Vice is a shaggy dog detective tale that is too long, too convoluted, too slow, too mumbly, too confusing, and not nearly funny or engaging enough. If it weren’t for the enduring pain that was The Master, this would qualify as Anderson’s worst picture.
One of my main complaints of Anderson’s last two movies has been the paucity of a strong narrative, especially with the plodding Master. It almost felt like Anderson was, subconsciously or consciously, evening the scales from his plot-heavy early works. Being plotless is not a charge one can levy against Inherent Vice. There is a story here with plenty of subplots and intrigue. The problem is that it’s almost never coherent, as if the audience is lost in the same pot haze as its loopy protagonist. The mystery barely develops before the movie starts heaping subplot upon subplot, each introducing more and more characters, before the audience has a chance to process. It’s difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships straight, and then just when you think you have everything settled, the film provides even more work. The characters just feel like they’re playing out in different movies (some I would prefer to be watching), with the occasional crossover. I literally gave up 45 minutes into the movie and accepted the fact that I’m not going to be able to follow it, so I might as well just watch and cope. This defeatist attitude did not enhance my viewing pleasure. The narrative is too cluttered with side characters and superfluous digressions.
The plot is overstuffed with characters, many of which will only appear for one sequence or even one scene, thus polluting a narrative already crammed to the seams with characters to keep track of. Did all of these characters need to be here and visited in such frequency? Doc makes for a fairly frustrating protagonist. He’s got little personality to him and few opportunities to flesh him out. Not having read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, I cannot say how complex the original character was that Anderson had to work with. Doc just seems like a placeholder for a character, a guy who bumbles about with a microphone, asking others questions and slowly unraveling a convoluted conspiracy. He’s more a figure to open other characters up than a character himself. The obvious comparison to the film and the protagonist is The Big Lebowski, a Coen brothers film I’m not even that fond over. However, with Lebowski, the Coens gave us memorable characters that separated themselves from the pack. The main character had a definite personality even if he was drunk or stoned for most of the film. Except for Short’s wonderfully debased and wily five minutes onscreen, every character just kind of washes in and out of your memory, only registering because of a famous face portraying him or her. Even in the closing minutes, the film is still introducing vital characters. The unnecessary narration by musician Joanna Newsome is also dripping with pretense.
Another key factor that limits coherency is the fact that every damn character mumbles almost entirely through the entirety of the movie. And that entirety, by the way, is almost two and a half hours, a running time too long by at least 30 minutes, especially when Doc’s central mystery of what happened to Shasta is over before the two-hour mark. For whatever reason, it seems that Anderson has given an edict that no actor on set can talk above a certain decibel level or enunciate that clearly. This is a film that almost requires a subtitle feature. There are so many hushed or mumbled conversations, making it even harder to keep up with the convoluted narrative. Anderson’s camerawork can complicate the matter as well. Throughout the film, he’ll position his characters speaking and slowly, always so slowly, zoom in on them, as if we’re eavesdropping. David Fincher did something similar with his sound design on Social Network, amping up the ambient noise to force the audience to tune their ears and pay closer attention. However, he had Aaron Sorkin’s words to work with, which were quite worth our attention. With Inherent Vice, the characters talk in circles, tangents, and limp jokes. After a protracted setup, and listening to one superficially kooky character after another, you come to terms with the fact that while difficult to follow and hear, you’re probably not missing much.
Obviously, Inherent Vice is one detective mystery where the answers matter less than the journey and the various characters that emerge, but I just didn’t care, period. It started too slow, building a hazy atmosphere that just couldn’t sustain this amount of prolonged bloat and an overload of characters. Anderson needed to prune Pynchon’s novel further. What appears onscreen is just too difficult to follow along, and, more importantly, not engaging enough to justify the effort. The characters fall into this nether region between realism and broadly comic, which just makes them sort of unrealistic yet not funny enough. The story rambles and rambles, set to twee narration that feels like Newsome is just reading from the book, like Anderson could just not part with a handful of prose passages in his translation. Much like The Master, I know there will be champions of this movie, but I won’t be able to understand them. This isn’t a zany Chinatown meets Lewboswki. This isn’t some grand throwback to 1970s cinema. This isn’t even much in the way of a comedy, so be forewarned. Inherent Vice is the realization for me that the Paul Thomas Anderson I fell in love with is not coming back. And that’s okay. He’s allowed to peruse other movies just as I’m allowed to see other directors. I wish him well.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson met with great resistance when he was shopping his script around for The Master. It was dubbed the “Scientology movie” and reportedly based upon the controversial religion and its leader, L. Ron Hubbard. It looked like Hollywood was spooked by the prospect of a movie that appeared to take on Scientology. Eventually Anderson got his financing and made the movie he wanted to make. Calling it the “Scientology movie” is misleading. I wish The Master was a Scientology expose because that would be far more interesting than the exasperating film I got, which is one nutty guy who dabbled in a Scientology-like cult. Maybe the resistance Anderson experienced wasn’t an indication of the subject matter. Perhaps it was only an indication that The Master just wasn’t a compelling story, a charge I can agree with wholeheartedly after viewing this disappointing film.
Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix) is struggling to adjust to life after World War II. Fresh out of the Navy, he works as a department store photographer, until his rage and social awkwardness lead to him being fired. He’s drifting about and hops onto a ferry leaving town. Onboard is Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, a man.” Dodd has gathered a revered following. He believes that people can regress to past lives trillions, yes you read that right, of years into the past. Dodd’s own children admit that dear old dad is “making it up as he goes along.” His movement, known as The Cause, has been called a cult by detractors, the will of one man, and the followers don’t take kindly to challenges from the outside. Dodd adopts Freddie as a project. He’s on the verge of completing his second major treatise and Freddie seems to be an inspiration for him. Freddie finds some measure of acceptance within Dodd’s community of followers, but his erratic behavior keeps people on constant edge.
I found The Master to be boring; uncompromisingly boring, hopelessly boring, but worse than all that, pointlessly boring. Was this really a story that needed to be told? I cannot fathom why Anderson chose to tell this story or, in particular, why he chose to tell it through the character of Freddie Quell. A story about a huckster exploiting people with a religion he made up is a fascinating story with or without the Scientology/L. Ron Hubbard connections. That’s a story worthy of being made. Now, instead of this, we have two hours of a guy acting nuts. I would better be able to stomach the Freddie character if I felt like anything of significance was happening to him. He’s a broken man, clearly mentally ill in some capacity, and prone to outbursts that turn violent. Does he change? Does he grow? Does he do anything? Does his life have anything of significance happen to him over the course of 137 minutes? Not really. He’s pretty much the same guy from start to finish; his arc is essentially that he’s crazy at the start, meets Dodd, and then is crazy at the end. We get it, the guy is messed up. He makes a drink out of paint thinner for crying out loud. I didn’t care about him at all. I don’t need to see static scene after static scene of this guy acting out. I wasn’t a There Will Be Blood fan but at least Daniel Plainview was a strong central character with enough dimensions to carry a film. Freddie Quell just isn’t that interesting or entertaining. He’s actually a tiresome character because you get a perfect sense of who he is in just 10 minutes. The rest of the movie just seems to remind you what you already know.
It is a disappointing realization but I feel like the Paul Thomas Anderson I enjoyed is slipping away, as his flashy, propulsive, plot-heavy early work has given way to opaque, reserved, and plotless movies. It’s like I just watched someone with the verve of Martin Scorsese transform into a poetic film somnambulist like Terrence Malick; not a good move. I don’t know what Anderson’s message is or what he was trying to say, and I’m unsure why he decided to use a limited character like Freddy Quells as his prism. It almost feels like Anderson is compensating for his plot-driven films of his early career, like he has to balance the scales in his mind. I shudder where this recompense might take Anderson for his next film. I like to think of myself as an intelligent moviegoer who enjoys being challenged by movies. But that doesn’t mean I’ll accept anything challenging as quality. Case in point: Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialism, which was contemptuous of its audience. I don’t mind doing work but you have to give me a reason. There has to be a reward, either with the narrative or with the characters. I found no rewards with The Master and it’s not because I didn’t “get it,” film snobs, it’s because the movie was too opaque to say anything of substance beyond simplistic observations about the abuse of power and influence.
When I say plotless I don’t mean that we’re simply watching paint dry, though there are stretches of The Master where I would feel that could be a suitable test from Dodd. There are events. There are scenes. There are changing relationships. It’s just that none of this seems to matter, or at least it never feels like it does. There’s no build, no increase in urgency, and The Master just sort of drifts along to the detached rhythms of Freddie. The movie can feel interminable, and you may ask yourself, on a loop, “Is this going anywhere?” There are two scenes that stand out because there are so few that seem to matter. One is shortly after Dodd and Freddie have been arrested. The two men are locked in opposing cells and they explode in venomous anger. It feels like Anderson can finally allow his characters to vent out what they’ve truly been feeling. Another memorable scene, just for weirdness, is when we jump inside Freddie’s head. All the women, young and old, at a social gathering suddenly lose their clothing (think: Choke). It’s one of the best scenes at exploring Freddie’s sexual compulsions, plus it’s just peculiar. I wanted more scenes like this where we try and get inside the man’s mind. The rest of the characters are underwritten, especially Amy Adams (Trouble with the Curve) as Dodd’s wife and fierce protector. This is a movie about two strong-willed men and everybody else gets relegated to minimal supporting positions. I miss the sprawling humanism of Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
From a technical standpoint, the movie is very accomplished. The 1950s era setting is lushly recreated, aided by cinematography that seems to present this bygone age in a colorless manner. By this I mean that the world feels muted, repressed, the colors are there but they don’t pop, and I think this look fits the movie marvelously. Anderson shot the film in 70mm, which would offer startling detail to his images. I did not see the film projected this way (as will most) but you could sense the time and effort put into getting the details of his world right. The musical score by Johnny Greenwood is minimalist but effective, with a few key strokes of a guitar to note rising tension.
The true draw of the film is the performances, which are excellent and at least provide a reason for staying awake. This is Phoenix’s first role since his two-year performance stunt documented in I’m Still Here. It feels like his off-putting, confrontational, bizarre antics for that faux documentary were all just training for playing the character of Freddie. The man has sad, droopy eyes, a fixed sneer that denotes his permanent displeasure and cocksure attitude. He speaks in mumbled sentences, he walks with his arms pinned out, donning the posture and behavior of a chicken. It’s at once an odd and striking performance, and Phoenix does his best to make the character worthy of your attention. He gives it his all, but sadly Freddie just doesn’t merit prominence. Hoffman (Moneyball) is equally alluring as the charming huckster who seems to come alive under a spotlight; the man exudes an oily presence, and yet there are a handful of moments where he lashes out, venting the roiling anger that seems to be barely contained at times. Hoffman’s performance is one of willful self-delusion rather than rampant self-destruction, which makes him far more compelling in my opinion. I would have preferred a Lancaster Dodd movie rather than a Freddie Quells movie.
The Master is a confounding, airless, opaque character study that is far from masterful. The faults of the film and its stilted ambitions lay squarely at the feet of its flawed central character, Freddie Quell. The movie adopts Freddie’s demeanor, managing a distant, standoffish, defiant attitude that thumbs its nose at audience demands. Don’t you know entertainment has no place in art, silly filmgoers?
Anderson is still a vastly talented filmmaker but I lament the path his career has taken. I adored the first four movies of Anderson’s career, but now I wonder if I’ll ever get something along the likes of Boogie Nights or even Punch-Drunk Love again. At this point Anderson has earned enough artistic latitude to tell whatever stories he so chooses. This is why my frustration has mounted because I am at a loss to why he feels compelled to tell this story and in this manner. The Master is an artistically stillborn affair. You want to believe there’s more under the surface but I don’t see it. The main ideas and themes are hammered with little variation, the slight plot drifts aimlessly finding no sense of momentum, and the characters are kept at such distance that the film feels clinical, like we’re observing creatures under glass for study. It just so happens that none of these characters warrant the attention. The Master will be praised by a plethora of film critics. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said it renews your faith in American cinema. I had the opposite reaction. The Master made me lose faith, mainly that I’ll ever enjoy a Paul Thomas Anderson film from this point on.
Nate’s Grade: C