Movies rarely feel like events anymore. That’s perhaps ironic, considering the superhero industrial complex is all about creating “events,” but they feel orchestrated in a way that lacks the enthusiasm that made going to the movies a singular experience. These days, with the preponderance of online streaming and high definition home theaters lessening the need to travel to the cinema, it can often feel like a perfunctory experience. But there are still projects that excite even the hardest of hearts. For some, it may be Martin Scorsese or Spielberg or Christopher Nolan that gets them primed for excitement. For me, though, it’s Paul Thomas Anderson. Which is funny, considering how often it takes more than one viewing for one of his films to sink in and for me to be able to wrap my head around exactly what he’s getting at. There’s a surface level opacity to many of PTA’s films, whether it’s the extended dialogue-free opening of There Will Be Blood or the narrative diffusion of Inherent Vice or the nigh incomprehension of some sections of Magnolia. He challenges his audience to keep up with him, and doesn’t seem particularly concerned if they don’t. He feels like the sort of director who makes films for himself, and if you’re the sort to have that intersect with your predilections, well, you get to be one of the lucky ones.
As one of the lucky ones, any new release from Paul Thomas Anderson is a cause to celebrate. But when that release also represents a reunion with generational talent Daniel Day-Lewis, who so powerfully lorded over There Will Be Blood ten years ago, in what is purported to be his last film prior to retirement, that’s something else entirely. Phantom Thread managed to sneak up on us, in a way, arriving just in time for the end of awards season in 2017 without any sort of festival appearance, simply screening to critics and guilds prior to a qualifying run in New York and LA at the end of the year. Set in 1950’s London, Day-Lewis plays the unquenchingly exacting Reynolds Woodcock, among the most respected dress designers in couture society. He’s gotten to this point by being singularly dedicated to his craft, a “confirmed bachelor” (his own words) with fleeting female companions outside his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, at her withering, catty best). That all changes when a sojourn out of town puts him on a collision course with the strong-willed Alma (Vicky Krieps). Alma isn’t the sort to be used and thrown away, captivating him in a way no other partner has, so much so that it begins to affect his work and the careful balance he needs to pour into his creative outlets.
Day-Lewis seems to be the only possible choice to bring Reynolds Woodcock to the screen, an exacting actor to live in such an exacting character. We’ve become accustomed to him changing his look so often in Lincoln and There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York, but here he mostly looks like himself, with swept-back hair and thick-rimmed glasses and exceptionally perfect clothing, as one might expect. The first act paints a stark picture of a man who desires to control his life to the smallest degree, living in a perfectly sanitized townhouse with a cadre of seamstresses who visit each day to make his designs a reality. He makes dresses for royalty and loves eating breakfast in peace and quiet. He uses people like commodities, relying on his sister to take out the trash when he’s done with them. That may sound cruel, and it is. He calls himself a bachelor because he claims his work is his life, but a few scenes of watching how he treats people seems to indicate the real truth behind the lack of a long-term mate. He’s the strongest will in the room (only ever challenged by his sister), but when he finds someone of an equal sort of will to his own, it throws him off kilter immediately.
As that woman with equal will, Krieps very much comes out of nowhere to go toe to toe with the most respected screen actor of the last twenty years (if not more). She’s worked plenty, but outside of small roles in the likes of Hanna and A Most Wanted Man, she hasn’t had the sort of exposure you might expect from an actress getting a leading role in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. She has a bit of an accent (from Luxembourg, originally), which helps her stand out from the litany of people Reynolds usually encounters. Her free spirit (and her outrageously loud and uncouth buttering of toast) grates on him, but her exoticism draws him in. For much of Phantom Thread, you wonder why she puts up with him at all. He treats her like an object for his use, equally likely to push her away as he is to embrace her. It’s a relationship by means of Stockholm Syndrome, the sort of bonding that in today’s parlance would be met with scorn.
But Anderson’s after more than just that. That’s arguably enough, as her presence begins to infect his life and show just how delicate the diorama he’s erected around himself truly is, but she’s also not particularly interested in going away quietly or being just another plaything for Cyril to dispose of when she breaks. It’s secretly a rather funny film, with Woodcock getting all sorts of delicious line reads, dressing down Alma and his staff with all sorts of put downs (“It’s as if you just rode a horse across the room”), and Alma having more than one opportunity to respond in kind. It would be cruel to reveal details of where things go in Phantom Thread’s third act, but rest assured that Anderson has put together a profoundly unconventional romance that consistently surprises until the credits roll. There’s an intensity to both Day-Lewis and Krieps here, giving and taking in equal measure, creating the most compelling kinky relationship of the year in film (not a small feat amongst the likes of The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name and mother!). If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ last performance, he’s going out on top. And if this is the opening of a door for Krieps to get more exposure in Hollywood, Anderson has done all of us a service.
Woodcock’s meticulousness matches Anderson’s, giving the director plenty of opportunity to flex his visual muscles. Phantom Thread is a more static film than the likes of Inherent Vice or The Master, so often confined to indoor settings. It’s purposefully claustrophobic, ensuring that neither Reynolds nor Alma can escape the townhouse, let alone each other, even if they want to. The camera, under control of Anderson for the first time (though he did not give himself a cinematography credit), studies its subjects with a steady, unceasing desire, be they human or object. There’s plenty of time to absorb every detail via agonizingly slow push-ins, to see why Woodcock is such a beloved dressmaker (thanks to costume designer Mark Bridges), and how easily his perfectly manicured life can crack under even the slightest pressure. The excellent score, once again by frequent collaborator Jonny Greenwood, is more tame and restrained than his often cacophonous and percussive work in previous films. It’s all designed to forge this impossibly delicate world for Alma to disrupt with her life and her energy and her freedom and her will.
Phantom Thread proves once again that Paul Thomas Anderson films are worth the wait. He’s a master of the form, so confident in his skill and storytelling ability that he can comfortably cast his eye toward any genre while still making it undeniably his. As his first romantic drama (and borderline romantic comedy, really), the film shows the shrewd command of form and tone he brings to all of his projects, and with actors the quality of Day-Lewis and Krieps leading the way, he honestly doesn’t need to do much to make something fascinating and alluring and gratifying all at once. Phantom Thread just made it into 2017 under the wire, and in so doing, it’s changed the game for all of us. It is peerless filmmaking, plain and simple.