In Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, people are collections of conflicting impulses that express themselves through behavioral patterns, driven less by will than they are by conscious and unconscious desire. They collide into one another like atoms, sometimes repelling one another, sometimes establishing bonds and forming new stable (or unstable) compounds. When Anderson’s films explore landscapes like that of the pornography industry or religious cults, they remain less interested in big, capital-letter ideas like Religion and Capitalism than they do in the way industries and communities function as expressions of collective behavioral patterns. Over the course of his career, Anderson’s films turn ever more to the mysteries inherent to faces and physical gestures, the portals by which we glimpse the chaos of the human mind.
Anderson’s latest feature serves as an extension of a journey he began in 2007’s There Will Be Blood. Often misapprehended as a Big Metaphor Movie, Blood was less of an allegory than it was a character study, following oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), as he attempts and fails to establish social bonds with those around him. Starting with Blood, Anderson’s films feel increasingly impressionistic and improvised, roaming more and more freely in their observation of human activity. The ebbs and flows of Blood remain strange and unpredictable, a film of odd time jumps and loose ends. The consistent focal point is Day-Lewis, who, through Plainview’s utterances and postures, paints a portrait of gradual degradation. Detached from the human beings that surround him, Plainview’s behavioral pattern reinforces itself so much that he de-evolves. The film’s allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Darwinian landscape achieve resolution in the film’s final scene, wherein Plainview completes the transformation from human to ape.
Anderson’s subsequent feature, The Master, traced the relationship between a cult leader, Lancaster Dodd, and the object of his fascination, a mentally troubled young man named Freddie. Freddie, as played by Joaquin Phoenix, may be the closest thing in any of Anderson’s films to a creature of pure animalistic impulse, all twitchy energy and earthy desire. His presence brings out a bit of the animal in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Dodd, too, who both loves Freddie for his freedom from decorum and because he sees in Freddie the fulfillment of his own creative project. Freddie remains in Dodd’s orbit for some time, but Dodd cannot satisfy him, and so Freddie finds satisfaction through more primal means than the dogmas and rituals of Dodd’s cult.
Anderson brought Phoenix over to his next feature, Inherent Vice, where he plays stoner detective Larry “Doc” Sportello. Vice‘s neo-noir shaggy-dog story allowed Anderson to explore the architecture of American society as a labyrinth both extending from and constraining a colorful spectrum of people-animals, each caught in the throes of their own peculiar madness. Its existential anxieties about society and the self are ultimately one and the same. Both society and the individual remain fundamentally unfathomable, following an uncertain path to an uncertain destination. Knowledge of either is, at best, provisional.
Anderson’s latest feature, Phantom Thread, takes the form of chamber drama, an appropriate progression for a filmmaker so fascinated with the revelatory power of human gesture. The intimacy of the form narrows and tightens Anderson’s gaze–he has never been so careful–as he observes its central trio, finding the madness in a world of beautiful surfaces. Daniel Day-Lewis once again re-teams with Anderson, appearing here as dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, who, with the aid and guidance of his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), maintains the prestigious House of Woodcock. When he becomes infatuated with a girl named Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), his life is thrown into disarray.
Anderson, who has always been something of a sensualist, takes great delight and pleasure in surveying Woodcock’s work, in exploring the ecstasies of its lines and textures. These dresses are not just objects, but vessels of personality. They’re the intimate, sensual expression of Reynolds himself. Both Alma and Cyril partner with Reynolds in his work; he requires both of them to focus his creative energies.
Things begin to strain as Alma’s presence realigns Reynolds’ world, unbalancing the power dynamics that have sustained it. These pivots and shifts, some comic, some suspenseful, play out in tightly written scenes wherein much is left unsaid. In Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Manville, Anderson has three extraordinary faces that can say everything without uttering anything.
Phantom Thread offers a vision of romance rooted in evolving co-dependency. Phantom Thread‘s final line, uttered by Daniel Day-Lewis, gestures back toward Daniel Plainview’s final declaration from There Will Be Blood. In Phantom Thread, though, the emphasis has shifted: it is not an ending, but a new beginning. A bond has been formed. A new pattern emerges.