If there’s one reason above all others that I’ve harbored an affinity for Paul Thomas Anderson’s filmmaking, it’s his penchant to find worth in the worthless. Inherent Vice found direction in Doc Sportello’s wild goose chase; The Master found weight in the hollow promises of Lancaster Dodd; There Will Be Blood found humanity in self-professed antihuman Daniel Plainview; Boogie Nights found a home in the sex-, drug-, and self-inflicted-gunshot-wound-laden household of Jack Horner. All the more challenging is that Anderson has, for my money, never seemed to claim that any of his subjects necessarily deserve this designation, instead operating on the grounds that if you’re going to send a violent loner on an ad-hoc trip to Hawaii on an ill-conceived mission to win the heart of a practical stranger, you may as well find the beauty in that. Ugliness and all.
Phantom Thread is different from the director’s other movies in many ways. Its pace is slower and its step is gentler, and Anderson himself taking over cinematography duties from longtime collaborator Robert Elswit renders a more delicate, powdery finish. And when it comes to the ugliness in Phantom Thread, it’s hidden beneath three layers of gorgeous velvet.
The film launches us outright into a world of beautiful dresses, hallways, an people, kicking off with the ostensibly charming meet-cute between captain of industry Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his new muse, café waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). The folksy expat catches Reynolds’ eye with little more than a stumble and a giggle, and the handsome sophisticate proceeds to enchant Alma by keeping clever and unflappable even (or especially) at his cruelest.
Anderson no doubt delights in endearing us to Reynolds and Alma—to her electric audacity, to his silver-tongued kibitzing, and to the surprises they bring out in one another. But the real fun is in the film’s chipping away at these veneers, unveiling what festers within not only our pair of heroes but the every complicated genius and quirky dream girl to set precedent therefor.
Though Phantom Thread’s characters are cut from the cloth of romantic cinema tradition, the pair’s metaphysical disembowelment drives their story to rather unexpected and rousingly weird places. Curdled by its injection with Andersonian DNA, the veritable nucleus of 1950s London’s artisanal fashion scene that is Woodcock’s home and workspace gives way to fainting spells, Machiavellian ploys, and even the odd wedding mutiny, while Reynolds himself devolves from your prototypical John Barrymore type to an effete Larry David.
That Reynolds Woodcock may not be the kind of powerhouse transformation on which Daniel Day-Lewis has founded his celebrity is distinguished all the more by the fact that the superlative thespian has chosen Phantom Thread as his final film. But what the part allows of Day-Lewis, where perhaps even his favored roles shortchanged him, is opportunity to tread in simple mortality. More than a person, Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln was a presence—ditto Bill the Butcher and My Left Foot’s Christy Brown. In Phantom Thread, the actor gets the rare opportunity to play small, even if such comes in the form of a man too big for his britches.
Despite the intrinsic merriment in watching Day-Lewis dole out sass and spite, the invitingly unpredictable Krieps is Phantom Thread’s dynamo. The relationship between newcomer Alma and a world committed against its seams to such brittle austerity is at once the purveyor of Phantom Thread’s heartiest laughs (with the possible exception of one or two gut-busters tossed out by Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ sister, business manager, and proverbial babysitter Cyril) and bitterest winces. Just as their amalgam betrays the fragility in Reynolds’ composure, it slowly pulls back the curtain on the acid pooling behind Alma’s teeth; even at the most bombastic of these instances, Krieps sustains such an engaging character.
In fact, all uncertainty inspired by Phantom Thread’s every suspicious turn is soon enough stricken null. Anderson’s inclination to stupefy and stir before inevitably satisfying makes Phantom Thread such an immaculate piece of emotional warfare, both for its leading players and its entranced viewers. True enough, the film may not look, sound, or move like your usual Anderson picture; though bizarre in the way that only PTA can ordain, director’s latest doesn’t drape in his regular colors, nor sing in his usual buzz. But in the most important way, Phantom Thread is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie: one about the joy in misery, the good in evil, the meaning in meaninglessness, the beauty in ugliness. Like his masterpiece Punch-Drunk Love, Phantom Thread is about a love story that probably shouldn’t be, but that—and here’s the best part—still is.
Rating: 4.5 burritos out of 5
Images: Focus Features
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.
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