By: Steve Pulaski
Eight films into what has been an accomplished career, Paul Thomas Anderson continues to assert himself as one of cinema's greatest craftsmen even as his latest, Phantom Thread, criminally underwhelms. Anderson has never been more confident in his ability to infuse his love for aesthetics into his stories, and in this case, he does so in one that calls for the attention to detail to match its unlikable leading man. He's also been one to evoke medium-to-long takes to capture the emotion of his subjects. In Phantom Thread, these two devices are on display once more, only this time, in a film that undermines a the great potential of its story and effectively makes it a largely lifeless bore lacking in tension and human interest.
We are dropped in 1950s London where a dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock works alongside his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) creating garments for the affluent. Reynolds is so consumed by his process that he paradoxically seems to assume he's the only person on Earth that has any kind of significance. Case and point, he sits with his sister during breakfast, often in complete silence, and gets frazzled at the slightest movement or noise. When he meets Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), a local waitress at a pastry shop one morning, she becomes his muse, inspiring an onslaught of new designs and patterns for his unique line of dresses. A rather ordinary but honest woman, Alma inadvertently becomes Reynolds's muse and subsequently his love interest despite his constant abuse and horrendous treatment of her. The film chronicles their relationship as one built off of complicated desires that involve a woman loving an artist and directly inspiring his creations.
I'm not going to claim that Anderson doesn't know how to commit these ideas to film. This is the same man who wrote and directed Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood. and The Master, all hailed as some of the finest films of their respective decades, so clearly he has a resume that suggests some success conveying a multitude of ideas while remaining conscious of his approach. I will say that the direction he adopts for Phantom Thread simply never worked for me in virtually any sense. Here we have a film with three central characters, all complex and each self-centered and manipulative people in their own ways, and by the end, all we can really reflect on is how self-centered and manipulative they were. Anderson doesn't meaningfully get to the roots of their behaviors, leaving the story as one that shows how a trifecta of contemptible people are apparently made for one another because no one else would host them at a dinner party much less marry or move in with them.
Reynolds and Alma indulge in many conversations that carry the stilted rhythms of mannered movie dialog, the likes of which are never, and I mean never, emulated in reality. The dialog also doesn't tell us much more about Reynolds and Alma than we can already observe; the patterns we see in their relationship make up for the most interesting moments in the film. Returning to the point of Reynolds carrying a temper that's offset very easily by the slightest annoyance, imagine the downturn in his brow and the shift in his mood when he's trying to illustrate designs at the dinner-table and Alma noisily butters her bread and pours her tea. The sounds come through as if they're causing ripples in the sound barrier, and Reynolds's reactions are as unhinged as they are downright unacceptable. Presented in these moments tells us what we need to know about the characters moreso than any dialog that Anderson writes over the course of 130 minutes.
Still, these moments are exactly that: modestly memorable inclusions, sporadically injected into a narrative that is groggily paced and too consumed by intense decorations. Reynolds's process never becomes clear, and as unique as he is, creating dresses wealthy bureaucrats can't help but have, the aura of him as a person and a designer outside of his elusive behavior is seldom communicated. Alma doesn't have much of a role other than to show the unbelievable patience and undeserved devotion to an abusive soul who clearly doesn't value her much more than a trophy or a kind remark. The same goes for Cyril, who recognizes the belligerent tendencies of her brother, yet still remains his closest confidant and hardly ever interfering even when he's most definitely in the wrong. These thinly drawn characters are swallowed alive by the perception of glamour we loan to their otherwise unremarkable, hollow existences. These are lofty ideas taken with a grain of salt in a film that becomes as superficial as the characters themselves. There's no depth to their person and desperately little human interest.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock in what he's claimed to be his final role as an actor. If this is true, it would be as heartbreaking as if Warren Beatty left off his legendary career on his most recent directorial effort Rules Don't Apply in the sense that both projects are not uniformly satisfying swansongs. Day-Lewis isn't tasked to give a performance that even comes close to touching how involved he was in Lincoln or the aforementioned There Will Be Blood. The gravitas that ordinarily occupies him and his characters feels decidedly minimal in comparison here. Day-Lewis manages to highlight Reynolds's cloying mannerisms and narcissistic attitude with great directness at times, but he doesn't look nor feel challenged in the role. Manville gives a performance I'd argue is just as good given what she's tasked to do, and Krieps has one powerful moment that comes during the film's rising action because it's the first time her character appears to be acting with unflinching determination to do something.
Anderson continues his usual do-all duties by making the cinematography register as something so luminous and graceful when it counts the most. He does, however, enlist in the extremely talented Jonny Greenwood to compose a sometimes unsettling score that serves as a device to inspire some of the film's only moments of tension. Finally, Mark Bridges's costume design is quite frequently astounding, but most impressive when we see it as a reward. Consider the way Anderson positions moments so Reynolds can do something like take Alma's measurements for two straight minutes before he tailors a dress to fit her exact proportions; in that moment, Bridges's costumes don't feel like a cherry but a monk's reward. Even in Anderson's most disappointing projects, he capitalizes on instances like that to make his craft and that of others shine in precise moments.
But I found Phantom Thread a chore to sit through, for the most part. I sat unfazed by its modest character revelations and not compelled whatsoever by its exhaustive look into the lives of selfish, caddish individuals that lack self-awareness and whose actions do not amount to anything narratively profound given all the time we must observe them. The film could've been a cautionary tale of falling in love with artists or an act of condemnation on part of its abusive lead. Instead, it idles as it watches the evil spell evoked by utterly miserable people in a pretty environment. Although you wouldn't get the aesthetic delights, you could probably see a similar occurrence on any given Wednesday at Neiman-Marcus.