2017, R, 130 mins.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock / Lesley Manville as Cyril Woodcock / Vicky Krieps as Alma
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
It may sound
beyond strange to say this, but Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my favorite
directors that has made a fair number of films that I have not liked...at least as much as others have.
When he burst onto the movie scene in the 90s with films like HARD
EIGHT and especially BOOGIE NIGHTS (still his best film) and MAGNOLIA (his
second best), I honestly thought we were witnessing the birth and growth
of one of the most singularly talented American directors in some time.
Then came strange
experimental pictures, like PUNCH DRUNK LOVE (adored by many, but loathed
by me), followed by THERE WILL BE
BLOOD (masterful in parts, but undisciplined in others), and more
recent work like THE MASTER
(technically mesmerizing, but dramatically hollow and distancing)
culminating with his last film, 2014's INHERENT
VICE (an overly long period whodunit mystery noir that was a
disjointed endurance test). Considering
that he unquestionably made two of the best films of the 90s that
solidified his rightful place among the filmmaking elite, the 2000s and
the current decade for Anderson have left me feeling empty, and I
was in the minority in thinking that the multiple Oscar nominated
cinematic maverick had...lost his creative mojo.
lengthy preamble brings me, yes, to his latest offering in PHANTOM
THREAD, which after several years of intermittently disappointing films
from Anderson represents a most welcome and bravura return to form for him.
Not only is this period romance drama as meticulously and
painstakingly crafted as anything he's ever done, but PHANTOM THREAD dives
head first into the dark and twisted psychological mind games that the
director is so supremely skilled at capturing.
His visual command of the film is reliably top notch - which
certainly wasn't absent in his previous three films - but I found this
tale of a somewhat toxic and mysteriously evolving courtship and marriage -
set against the backdrop of 1950s London and within the fine art of dressmaking
- so intoxicating to lose oneself in.
I love it when films show me a world largely unseen before in film,
and it fascinates me that Anderson, in turn, seems obsessively captivated
The overall story
here has a deceptive simplicity and straightforward narrative momentum,
despite taking some decidedly dark turns towards the unpredictably
macabre. PHANTOM THREAD
concerns renowned British dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis,
reportedly his last film role before self-imposed retirement), a dedicated
and painstaking artist in his trade that also happens to be a confirmed
bachelor. Early on it becomes
abundantly clear why he's still single: he's hopelessly enamoured and
married to his work. That,
and to call him a nitpicky perfectionist would be a grand understatement.
Everything around him in his life - both in and around his job -
has to be just right, regardless of a stitch or hem being slightly out of
place on a dress or whether or not butter is used to cook asparagus for
dinner appetizers. Hell,
someone preparing their toast in the morning - as minutely inconsequential
as it appears - is enough to set him off into a day and morale breaking
panic. This dude is severely
But he's a superlative craftsman when it comes to the fine art of dressmaking, which
has famously set him far apart from others in his trade.
No small detail is left undone (he even sews little messages and
sentimental trinkets into the fabric of his gowns to make them all
uniquely his own). Unfortunately,
Reynolds finds himself in a creative funk, which catches the eyes of his
business partner and sister, Cyril (a delightfully snarky Lesley Manville).
If anything, Reynolds desperately feels that he needs to reclaim
his passion for his work and, in turn, find a muse that will inspire him.
This takes him to a fateful meeting one day at an English courtyard
restaurant after being served by a somewhat clumsy waitress named Alma
(Vicky Krieps), and from the get-go there's something he finds beguiling
about her. He
matter-of-factly asks her out to dinner, which she agrees to, which
culminates in him bringing her back up to his studio...but not for sex.
He politely requests to take her exact measurements from head to
toe while fitting her for a dress. Alma
becomes smitten with Reynolds, mostly because he's arguably the only man
she's experienced that gave her that type of attention before, whereas he's enamored
with her because she's rekindled his artistic drive.
relationship between Reynolds and Alma is the cornerstone to PHANTOM
THREAD, and discussing it in any further and specific detail would spoil
some of the film's more delicious surprises.
What's most compelling about it, though, is how it becomes a
cerebral battle of one-upmanship between them as their romance both
blossoms and spirals down some twisted paths.
Their courtship is warm and loving in some instances, only later
to be shown as deeply tortured in others.
PHANTOM THREAD becomes unusually haunting - and paradoxically
extremely amusing - to watch as we see the ultra uptight dandy that is
Reynolds become unglued by the tiniest insignificant action that
Alma commits, which usually involves the former breaking out into fits of
infantile verbal outbursts. Alma,
on the other hand, is not a meek willed woman that puts up with Reynolds'
verbal abuse; she becomes more increasingly infatuated
with the prospects of pushing her man's buttons and seeing just how much
she can get away with. Yet, there's this unmistakably weird aura of co-dependency on
display here between them: They need each other, even though they both
seem to mutually agree that they're a hopelessly bad fit.
is what makes PHANTOM THREAD one of Anderson's most compulsively alluring
films in many years. It works
as a perversely dark comedy about the nature of relationships and how they
become unyieldingly broken, only to be propped up again under some highly
peculiar methods. Anderson's
film grabs us from the opening scene and draws us into this world that
outwardly looks pristine and orderly, but inwardly has characters that
teeter on all out emotional implosion because of their ties to one
another. It's also a razor
sharp exploration on relationship power struggles and how people on both
sides want control as a form of enabling erotic desires.
Anderson never builds Reynolds and Alma's relationship to
preordained conclusions and instead opts for a rather chilling third act
that (a) doesn't have a neat and tidy resolution and (b) becomes something
profoundly sinister while also having an remarkably offbeat happy ending.
It also makes you rethink Alma completely as a simple soft spoken
country girl that has become caught up in the luxurious world that
Reynolds' offers up to her. She's anything but a victim in this film, and the manner she
taps into her own, shall we say, sadistic impulses gives her union with
Reynolds a whole other chilling layer.
True to form,
Anderson crafts impeccable performances out of his leads, with Daniel Day
Lewis predictably leading the charge, playing one of his most
fascinatingly rich characters. Reynolds
is shown as a man of dignified manners that's also prone to being
ruthlessly dismissive and childishly spiteful when things don't go
precisely his way, and Lewis - in pure performance immersive fashion -
does a deep dive exploration of this man who's capable of being both a
distinguished gentleman and a loathsome social monster from one scene to
the next. The 60-year-old
actor's painstakingly layered performance serves as a nice counterpoint
to Vicky Krieps' more reserved and quietly modulated work in arguably the
trickier character to effectively pull off.
She has to portray a woman swept off her feet by the initial
romanticized lifestyle of living under a revered dressmaker, only then to
later imbue this woman with an internalized drive to ensure that her
domineering husband doesn't completely get the upper emotional hand in
their relationship. Rounding off the performance triumvirate is Lesley
Manville's sternly amusing sister to Reynolds, whose blunt declarations
to just about everyone around her shows her to be a battle hardened
business woman that's not to be trifled with.
She serves as both an enabler to Reynolds' needs that also has -
like Alma - power over him as well.
PHANTOM THREAD is, on paper, about the slow burn on-again/off-again union
between Reynolds and Alma, there's also something to be said about it serving as a sly piece of meta commentary about Anderson's own compulsive
predilections as a director. At
47, Anderson has developed a reputation for his filmmaking exactitude,
which sort of eerily mirrors the drives of Reynolds as a man that's an orderly and scrupulously defined perfectionist that
freak tendencies. Now, that's not a knock against Anderson, but he does serve
quadruple duty in PHANTOM THREAD as writer, director, cinematographer,
and camera operator (the latter two being uncredited).
His fastidious aesthetic focus here yields exquisite results:
PHANTOM THREAD - beyond being a riveting character drama - is also one of
the year's most handsomely engineered period dramas, replete with Oscar
worthy costumes by Mark Bridges, Mark Tildesley's evocative production
design, and one of the most beautifully rhythmic music scores of recent
memory by Jonny Greenwood (his striking chords become an omnipresent
background character in their own right) that
all work in concert to craft a portrait of post-war London that's
sensationally and gorgeously lived-in.
Anderson's technique is also more stylistically restrained than
normal, opting to use Kubrickian long takes and static camera setups to
help emphasis the growing emotional claustrophobia between Reynolds and
PHANTOM THREAD is
so deviously twisted on a dramatic and storytelling level, yet nuanced and
lushly romantic in its painterly eye for period detail that makes it
feel simultaneously dreamlike and authentically rendered.
The film is so seductive in the mind games it plays with viewers,
seeing as it doesn't go down browbeaten scripting paths and ends with
anything but a conventional ending for its pair of doomed lovers.
This is a film that's uniquely and wholly within Anderson's
creative wheelhouse, and it shows him at complete command of his craft,
something that I felt hasn't been seen in nearly twenty years.
Like a gracefully tailored dress, PHANTOM THREAD is constructed
with the type of surgical precision and confidence that made Anderson's early films
unqualified classics, and one that has most certainly renewed my lost
faith in him as an absolute filmmaking artist.