“It feels like I was looking for you for a long time.”
Phantom Thread is a delicate, deceptive and deliberate affair, unlike any other film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson prior. It’s the turning of a new leaf. The next perfectly placed incision, if you will, sewn carefully and precisely into his quite spectacular resume. The beginning (or, perhaps, the ongoing continuation) of his mid-career journey into broader, denser and more assertive themes and contexts. It’s the filmmaker behind such modern classics as Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love and The Master becoming a fuller, deeper, more mature and nuanced storyteller. Recognizing both his strengths and blind spots —as he has done throughout his astounding, extraordinary career — and reshaping himself into an even more perceptive, intuitive, graceful visionary, the results are rich and splendid, of course, but they’re also beautifully evocative, softly morose and tenderly engrossing.
It’s not quite the director’s finest work — if only because it’s impossible to decide what might be the writer/director’s best film — but it’s, nevertheless, a triumph in every imaginable sense. Anderson is quite possibly our best working director, making the movies that’ll inspire and enrich us throughout the decades. Phantom Thread is yet another gorgeous, lavish, wistfully meaningful success, and one that proves that Anderson will only continue to grow and retool himself, making new and invigorating works all the time. Or, at least, one can only hope. For Anderson is a truly masterful creator, one with constant inspiration. In fact, over time, Phantom Thread might prove itself to be one of his stealthiest cinematic achievements. If that’s the case, it’s certainly warranted. Phantom Thread is really, truly a spellbinding work of proficiency.
The film takes place in 1950s London, resulting in Anderson’s first feature film outside of the United States. It follows Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, in what’s supposedly his final performance), a renowned fashion designer who is known both for his beloved, fabulous dresses and for being, well, an arrogant ass. It’s the literal method to his madness. He cannot concentrate properly on the day’s work if even his routine breakfast is cluttered and spoiled with unwanted sounds. It’s the House of Woodcock, which is celebrated almost religiously by everyone and anyone who knows even a single bloody thing about good fashion and proper taste. But it’s not strictly Reynold’s domain. He lives and works with his always present sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who wields a stern, rigid power over Reynolds’s high demands but is also among the very few who knows and understands Reynolds and his very specific, stress-inducing ways. Reynolds Woodcock is a very meticulous man, and Phantom Thread is very much a meticulous reflection. But if you assume it is another meditation on the process of a tortured male genius, it’s most certainly not.
It’s not long before we’re introduced to Alma (Vicky Krieps), a small-town waitress whom Reynolds is instantly taken by. Shortly after their meet-cute interaction, Reynolds is removing her lipstick and sizing her for dresses — with Cyril, of course, in attendance. They’re literally sizing her up. But as Alma becomes an integral part of Reynolds ongoing process, she isn’t merely a “muse.” Rather, she becomes an essential part of Reynolds’s working process, and when she is underappreciated, Alma takes a few drastic measures.
From there, it’s best that Phantom Thread wists you away, unfolding upon you with all its cunning twists. Anderson’s latest film isn’t necessarily a shocking tome, but it’s filled wonderfully and captivatingly with its varied and valiantly-handled tricks. The more I let this film settle with me, and the more I let it get ingrained into my subconscious, the more I find it alluring and marvelous in all its wayward deceptions.
Phantom Thread is, like the many dresses under Reynold Woodcock’s gaze, a ravishingly assembled piece, crafted with the utmost care and purposefully deceitful. Just as Woodcock sneaks hidden inclusions into his finer works, so too does Anderson make sure to carefully, expertly assemble Phantom Thread with fine and loving threading. Though P.T. Anderson isn’t nearly as incessant as Woodcock, at least not these days, there are intentionally apparent parallels between the character and the filmmaker and their relationships to their work and legacies. Phantom Thread is one of the rare times where the story grows to inform the movie just as much (and maybe even more so, at times) than the characters themselves for Anderson, and it shows just how much progress and development comes from a filmmaker willing and versatile enough to continue excelling in an open, thoughtful manner. Anderson is a brilliant filmmaker still willing to change.
And with that, it’s a stunningly made film, undoubtedly, one that’s beautifully realized in every light detail. It’s also worth noting that Phantom Thread is without a credited singular cinematographer, as Anderson and various crew members helped craft each individual shot to make it look as rapturous as it could be. But as well-made as the movie is, Phantom Thread is truly an acting showcase. And what a powerful one it is. Day-Lewis is, naturally, brilliant. Those expecting anything close to the incredible performance he gave as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood might be disappointed by the quiet, introspective role he is given here. In quite a few ways, Reynolds is the complete opposite of Daniel in demeanor. They ultimately only share the same actor and writer bringing them both to life. But Day-Lewis is not less haunting and fascinating in his turn, providing another attentive, laser-focused performance that’s invigorating to watch.
Surprisingly and delightfully, though, Phantom Thread is not a film that merely belongs to Day-Lewis. At least, not completely. In numerous ways, Phantom Thread is an ensemble piece, and there are more than a handful of moments when Manville and Krieps steal the well-fashioned rug right under Day-Lewis’s feet. This trio of excellence provides us with one of our most fascinating on-screen triangles of the year, which resonants and revitalizes you with their wicked confidence. These are undoubtedly among the best performances Anderson has directed to date, and thanks to their subtleties and complexities, they’ll prove themselves fruitful in the multiple re-viewings that should expectedly come soon for this well-woven film.
Where it’ll stand in Anderson’s ongoing filmography is most curious. Phantom Thread warmly lingers with you, and it refuses to let itself come with any simple explanations or be fully realized in a single viewing. It is a haunting movie, in the best sense, and one of its absolute best attributes is the wonderful original score from Johnny Greenwood, providing lovely accompaniments, solidify the film’s greatness and firmly proving itself to be one of the positively finest musical works associated with the loving art of film in 2017. It’s truly that good, and so is Phantom Thread. While Anderson has never made easily digestible films, Phantom Thread, much like the also very good (and deeply underloved) Inherent Vice before it, is an absorbing, uncompromising work of visual whimsy from the sensational, incomparable Anderson. It’s hard to pin down everything that makes it all so fantastic, but it’ll certainly leave a great impression on you.