At this point in his storied career, there can be little doubt that P.T. Anderson is a master of film form. While some may argue for or against his specific aesthetic or narrative strategies, I don’t know of many people well-versed in cinema history who would contend that he might not deserve his position in the pantheon of great American auteurs. It is Anderson’s status as one of the most proficient filmmakers of his generation that makes his latest work, Phantom Thread, so simultaneously confounding and seductive. It’s a picture that will undoubtedly have its detractors as well as its ardent supporters — and I count myself among the latter.
My initial thought on leaving the theater was that Phantom Thread is to Anderson’s oeuvre what Barry Lyndon is to Kubrick’s — a movie that defies any reasonable expectation of what this esteemed filmmaker would produce and yet shows the unquestionable characteristics that unify his body of work. My esteemed predecessor referred to Barry Lyndon as “Boring Lie-down,” whereas I considered it one of Kubrick’s finest achievements. Similarly, Phantom Thread may not be my favorite Anderson film, but it’s up there — and I have no doubt that my affection for it will grow with subsequent viewings, as was the case with Lyndon.
While the Kubrick comparisons are my own, Anderson himself has compared this work to Hitchcock — specifically, Rebecca and Vertigo. To that list, I might add a touch of Suspicion, for reasons I won’t divulge at the risk of spoiling a significant plot twist. Where Anderson takes his tale of obsessive love is potentially more twisted than even the darkest corners of Hitchcockian tragedy but shares a similarly demented sense of gleefully dark humor. It’s an incredibly delicate balance to strike, and I can’t think of any other director currently working who could pull it off.
But let’s talk about the elephant in the room — if this is, in fact, Daniel Day-Lewis’ final performance, he’s gone out with a bang. His portrayal of a middle-age couturier to the elite is far more restrained than some of the actor’s better-known roles, lacking the bombast of Daniel Plainview or Bill the Butcher — but it’s every inch as subtly menacing and enigmatically impenetrable. Day-Lewis delivering a tour de force is perhaps to be expected, but potentially of greater note are the incredible turns from Lesley Manville as his creepily devoted sister and Vicky Krieps as his unlikely muse and love interest, both actresses more than holding their own in every scene.
Krieps, in particular, deserves praise for managing her gruelingly demanding role — due in no small part to the fact that, from a story perspective, she’s actually the protagonist of the plot. Anderson handles this narrative bait-and-switch with characteristic dynamism, his script playing absolutely straight with its byzantine character arcs. He tells us exactly what he’s doing all the way down the line, but I remained shocked when he arrived at a conclusion both unexpected and inevitable. Still, even if the plotting weren’t so expertly crafted, even if the performances weren’t so strong, Phantom Thread would nevertheless warrant my unequivocal recommendation for a very simple reason: This movie is gorgeous to look at. Whether it falls at the top or bottom of your PTA list is almost irrelevant — Phantom Thread is a Paul Thomas Anderson film in every sense that attribution connotes. Is there really a stronger recommendation than that? Rated R for language.
Now Playing at AMC Classic River Hills 10, Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande.