Not long ago, my brother and I were talking about revisiting Gangs of New York (2002) upon its addition to Netflix’s streaming stable (and thus, our collective cinematic memory). I felt that I must have missed something about the film as a teen, sitting in a multiplex past the two-hour mark. Yet again, in 2017, I found myself puzzling through rambling nostalgia, brutish editing and musical cues, and moments of brilliant performance. Jim Broadbent is terrific as “Boss” Tweed, but really what we talk about when we talk about this bloated, kind of forgettable piece of late Scorsese is Daniel Day-Lewis. In fact, Day-Lewis is so sublimely nuanced and intriguing that he is nearly all we have chosen to remember about the film. Did you recall a central romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz? Or do you more vividly recall Day-Lewis hurling daggers, literal and figurative, and fully ingesting the entire scene with a cock-eyed “whoopsie-daisy” delivered to the audience? While this may seem retroactively fussy, or even verging on whiny, my intention is not to put down the film or any of it’s performers. Rather, my intended focus is a lucid appraisal from my brother, who pointed out that, in the face of Daniel Day-Lewis’ fanatical devotion to any role, many films and filmmakers can appear wanting. In the service of inhabiting Bill the Butcher, the actor ceased bathing and remained in character throughout production. Other anecdotes attest that this strict adherence to method is Day-Lewis’ common practice, a single-minded attention which is surely challenging to accommodate even if the results are superlative. As such, certain films may appear off kilter by, understandably, not taking themselves as fully seriously as their pathological leading man.
The notable exception in recent memory is There Will Be Blood (2007), written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, as steadfast and calmly detailed a filmmaker as America has seen in recent memory. That film immediately announces its brutal, character-driven focus on Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) as he wordlessly drags his broken body across unforgiving terrain, his solitary perseverance driven by a fanatical desire to acquire and exploit all he can across his frontier. That harrowing first scene indicates the fullness of the tale, but the film that follows is unrelenting as it invasively exacerbates the maniacal greed of the character. Day-Lewis’ obsessive intent is met in full, scene after scene, in what amounts to an unseemly, perversely American tragedy. From his grim debut Hard Eight (1996) through his underrated adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2014), interrogating the American bummer has been a loose theme of Anderson’s work. Many of Anderson’s best characters illustrate sadistic or cruelly manipulative tendencies in self-reliance or rugged individualism, traits traditionally cast as heroic. Other persons embody a quiet destruction at the hands of the more forthright. But what makes these films so rich is that almost no one remains wholly one type from start to finish. Anderson’s films achieve a narrative and thematic density which manages to be literary and unpretentious. Distinctly American– but, you know, in the good way.
So, for many, there’s an incredible amount of expectation and intrigue associated with Phantom Thread (2017). While he has explored storytelling and cinematic techniques of some variety, I believe Anderson has never faltered in his vision since his breakout second film, Boogie Nights (1997). Adding gravity to the reunion of Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis is the actor’s stated intention that this performance be his last. Speculation about the parameters of finality aside, the stakes are high. And so I must report the only mundane bit of business about this whole project is that excited expectations are handily met and exceeded from the outset.
Phantom Thread lures us into a recollection of the introduction, seduction, and by turns painful and delightful integration of young waitress Alma Elson (the wide-eyed, vibrant, and increasingly coy Vicky Kreips) into the world of dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (the terrifically sophisticated and fastidious Day-Lewis) and his queerly intimate partner and sister Cyril (played with scintillating restraint and breathtaking control by Lesley Manville). The bizarre triangle pulsates with prison-like claustrophobia and dizzying displays of dynamic power. Out of deference or tact, I will refrain from revealing too many specific events in the story, though with this film I find it rather quaint to imagine any developments “spoiling” the effect of the actual experience. Retro-spoiler: would knowing Little Bill takes his own life really convey the trauma or significance of that event in the tapestry of Boogie Nights? The antagonistic fate of Daniel Plainview and the pious Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is rather predictable on paper, but would prior knowledge lessen the shock and horror of There Will Be Blood’s unhinged finale? Similarly, no mere accounting of scenes can describe the way Manville can wring charm, dignity, and threat from words like “splendid” or “exquisite,” or the conflated viciousness and vulnerability of Day-Lewis throwing a tantrum over breakfast. These are not the crucial campaigns of a star war, but rather environmental markers around the ebb and flow of battling egos and desires.
In its design and decor, the film is nothing short of sumptuous. But in this, as in its superb photography, it is functional and never ostentatious. Rumor circulated that Anderson was acting as director of photography for this project, in addition to producing, writing and directing. He asserts that photography was a collaborative endeavor and no one person is credited. Whatever the specifics of production, Anderson has, from the beginning, displayed a tremendous visual sense and clearly had a strong hand in cinematographer Robert Elswit’s work on past features. If anything, Phantom Thread is his most visually engaging work. Within a single scene, the camera will glide in anticipation of movement, parry with actors, parallel unexpected vistas, and then initiate a swift dialogue of close-ups, low-angles, and tilts to radically expand and contract the established space. Persons and objects are foregrounded or obscured to constantly shift and realign attention. While the camera is constantly evolving and commenting, it is always primarily descriptive and never florid.
Likewise, the sound thrums along in exacting detail, but is so constant and seamlessly polite that it manages to sneak up on the viewer. Jonny Greenwood once again (as he has since There Will Be Blood) provides a restless and often unnerving score. The original pieces are woven amongst Debussy, Schubert, and Duke Ellington, and the accompaniment is nearly uninterrupted. Thus, when the music does stop, or finally build to bang about at the intensity of argument, it is an unexpectedly overwhelming sensation.
Phantom Thread, like most of Anderson’s work, is an uncomfortable masterpiece. It manages to keep you “on the edge of your seat” with little in the way of conventional suspense or danger. The detailing of desire and self-sabotage is so meticulously nuanced that minor revelations and reversals can elicit gasps or sighs of recognition. The very structure of the story, as recounted by a principal player, weaves suspicion and speculation into the fabric of the film, and these are played into and against to delirious effect. There is an early confrontation that prompts Reynolds to pointedly suggest that Alma’s aesthetic taste may be “just enough to get you into trouble.” It is a curt and needlessly punitive observation, but it may well outline the questions above all else. The film is about taste, and trouble, and the inescapable nearness of the dead.
Oh, and seeing it projected in 70mm at the exquisite Coolidge Corner Theatre was very heaven.
dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Now playing on 70mm at Coolidge Corner Theatre, and lesser formats elsewhere.