Paul Thomas Anderson is a writer/director whose last few fiction films have just not hit the mark with me. I shamefully have yet to see his masterpiece There Will Be Blood (2007), but his more recent few films have just not been on the same plane as his earlier work. While typically well shot and objectively good looking, Anderson’s immediate work seems to be dominated by style-over-subject; high concept characters driving forward flimsy stories in order to draw attention to heady-yet-meaningless motifs through constant repetition. While it looked like he was on the verge of a deviation with Inherent Vice (2014), he seems to have gone back to this bland creative approach with his latest film, Phantom Thread (2017).
If you watched the trailer, the film plays out exactly as you might expect. A high society dress designer in 1950s London named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives a life that is as carefully curated – down to the smallest detail – as the clothes he makes with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). Past trauma from the early death of his mother has also led him to be extremely standoffish and controlling of any woman in his romantic relationships. He forces them away with the emotional toll brought on by his tightly controlled lifestyle, and only ends up using them as temporary muses and companions. That is, until he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), who becomes the next object of his affection but determines to stay with him while maintaining her individuality.
Anderson’s interesting characters have reliably been his greatest strength, and there is no exception here. Woodcock and Cyril have a very compelling dynamic that toes the line between “healthy sibling relationship” and “blooming professional fellowship.” She’s overly intrusive in Woodcock’s personal life and he constantly relies on her for emotional solace whenever things don’t go as he specifically dictates. From the outsider’s perspective, this is a pretty strange relationship, but thankfully the film doesn’t try to cover it up. Alma is a very underwritten character compared to Cyril and Woodcock, but she ends up a useful audience conduit who allows us to really see and comprehend the siblings’ relationship. More on the writing in a moment, but the top-notch casting is definitely what makes these characters work so well. Day-Lewis is perfect as always, and Manville and Krieps both manage to hold their own against him while standing strong individually.
Despite this, the widest area where this film lacked was in the actual story. Anderson has always been interested in telling character-driven stories over traditional plot-driven narratives, but he’s so focused on creating unique characters that he sacrifices doing something actually interesting with them. In Phantom Thread, we end up spending nearly the entire runtime with the three main characters doing the exact same things over and over again. The first third is engaging enough, because that’s when we are introduced to these people in their native environment, but when we realize that there’s going to be scene after scene of somebody getting mad about the same thing or Woodcock obsessing over the same things or doing something anal-retentive, we realize that the only reason we’re still watching is because of the performances. There are some deviations in the story that might suggest that it’s going in a totally different direction, but then everything normalizes neatly and it just gets frustrating.
I don’t know if Anderson is trying to do something with theming or to “make a statement” with regards to the very repetitive “plot,” but I found Phantom Thread to be thematically vacant. This is another typical issue in Anderson’s recent films; he makes his movies about “something,” but never really says anything about that something. I really don’t think I’m misjudging when I say that, even if his symbolism is incredibly subtle. Like sure, The Master (2012) is about power, but what about power? What is he saying about time with Inherent Vice? You could fill in these blanks with anything and it could work as a legitimate analysis because none of his characters really change or end up anywhere very different from where they were at an earlier portion of the film. I can admit that maybe I just “don’t get it,” but I sure as hell do not want anybody telling me to watch this film a second time in order for me to “get it” (ex. The Master), or to listen to the most complimentary analysis of this movie because someone likes “the style” (ex. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)), or to be accused of a lack of understanding because the movie is such a mindf**k (ex: Enemy (2014) or most of Chris Nolan’s filmography). The most I can pull from Phantom Thread is some sort of commentary on art and gender or gender-relations of the time period and how behind every strong/talented man there’s a strong woman, but once again this is more of a motif than a theme – and a very exhausting one at that when it’s shoved in your face for two hours.
Anderson is a filmmaker from whom I would love to see more traditional narratives or some truly artsy avant garde pieces. His current in-between style just doesn’t work all that well, and you’ll probably know going in whether you’ll like this movie or not. If at all possible I would love for someone to change my mind on this film, because I would hate to treat the last film of Daniel Day-Lewis’ career with utter indifference.
Phantom Thread is another miss from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson. While the film certainly boasts interesting characters played by very talented actors, it lacks a story with any kind of thematic resonance or pathos. Instead of doing anything worthwhile with these characters, Anderson puts them through the same unpleasantness over and over, for two hours.