- The place is Gordita Beach and the time is 1970 for Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh film- Inherent Vice.
- One of the best compositions in the film takes place in the opening as PTA places the camera between houses watching the ocean waves.
- Inherent Vice showcases a specific date/time vernacular that had to make The Coen Brothers smile (and Inherent Vice would make a great double billing with The Big Lebowski in general) with dialogue like “flatlanders” and “gentleman of the straight world” from Thomas Pynchon’s novel.
- Inherent Vice is unique in that the narration comes from a very minor character- Sortilège (Joanna Newsom)- the writing is superb though- “rooted through the dump that was his memory” and I think PTA liked the idea of being able to use some of Pynchon’s prose through Sortilège. Actor Ricky Jay plays both a minor character in Magnolia and provides the opening voiceover narration as well.
Joaquin Phoenix teams with PTA again after 2012’s The Master- here he plays Larry “Doc” Sportello. Doc is visited by a former lover Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) and there a beautiful long take as the camera follows them to her car before the big, green neon title displays and Vitamin C’s “CAN” song is needle dropped.
- Lebowski is one comparison (Doc even writes some ridiculous shorthand notes while investigating like the Dude does)- but the other is Chinatown. This is the world of Los Angeles real estate, tycoons, detectives- but the time is obviously different. This is the drug-infused 1970s with sandals and shag carpeting.
Doc’s home is a mess- he is a hippie (as Josh Brolin’s “Bigfoot” Bjornsen would say) with dirt, beads and clutter. Bigfoot’s living room décor looks more like a Douglas Sirk 1950s suburban living room. At the 25-minute mark, the mise-en-scene at Bigfoot’s is perfectly staged with the television in the foreground left. This sort of order (perhaps suffocating) at Bigfoot’s home makes for a stark contrast to Doc’s world.
- A strong composition of a room full of ties at the 35-minute mark
- PTA uses longer takes as the camera slowly tracks in on characters in heavy (a thicket) dialogue. Michael Kenneth Williams (playing Tariq) has one such shot, same for the park bench discussion between Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon (playing Penny Kimball) and again with Owen Wilson’s Coy Harlingen as the camera spies on Coy and Doc in an alley. The slow tracking camera movement choice adds to the paranoia.
Dissolves used often- this is a film that is about memory (though very different than The Master)
and not just memory- but nostalgia- one such scene is masterly accompanied by Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past.” – PTA’s camera slides (in a memory of Doc’s) down the pavement in the rain with Doc and Shasta – and then slides back. Pain and a quest for connection—there is a lot there under the surface for Phoenix’s Doc. He is a romantic with a broken heart. Brolin’s Bigfoot is a counterpoint to Doc- form and variation. “Are you ok, brother?” “I’m not your brother.” “No, but you could use a keeper”
- The actual detective case being investigated is a total labyrinth.
There is also a long take (a six-minute shot) of Shasta’s seduction of Phoenix – Waterston is not only his nostalgia trigger- but she is also Phoenix’s femme fatale of sorts- specifically the new Waterston that has changed.
- There is just less Jonny Greenwood score here than on their other (TWBB, The Master or The Phantom Thread) collaborations- this one owes a bit to Vertigo and “The Doors”, particularly the string work on “The End” (used in Apocalypse Now).
The film ends full circle with bookends as the camera rests between the houses looking out at the water.
- The film is PTA’s second adaptation- he adapted Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” for There Will Be Blood.
- There are two ways to view and evaluate this movie. In comparison with every other movie out there, even the majority of those in the archives, it stands as a superior work. It does, however, put an abrupt end to PTA’s string of five masterpieces dating back to 1997’s Boogie Nights. It is neither the rigid formal masterwork his previous three films are (Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and The Master) nor is it the stylistic high-wire act his two masterpieces from the 1990s (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) are.
- It was five years between Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood and then again five years before The Master– so with only two years between films here, it is fair to ask if PTA is an artist that needs little more time- though admittedly both Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love were delivered with a shorter gestation period.
- Belladonna here in the film in a small role- another adult film star actress like Nina Hartley in Boogie Nights.
- Benicio Del Toro as a lawyer certainly is a nod to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Inherent Vice is its own animal- but certainly an influence of Hawks’ The Big Sleep (plot indifference), Altman’s’ The Long Goodbye (absurdism) can be felt. There is a “The Last Supper” Da Vinci shot here in Inherent Vice which is also from Altman (MASH).
- Highly Recommend- top 10 of the year quality film.
I think this film belongs on the 100 best of the decade without a doubt. It’s clearly not on the level of his 5 past masterpieces where everyone of them was the best film of its respective year but it features a challenging narrative, an impressive visual style and one of the best uses of form from 2014. I think it’s closer to top 5 of its year than outside of the top 10.
@Drake— Yeah I can completely understand why you wouldn’t give points for the narrative, I needed 3 watches to appreciate it on the level I do now. It’s a very rewarding film. It’s a film where memory (as you very well pointed out) ties to the form. I think the beggining with the meeting of them and the flashbacks in general are the outstanding form here. The flashbacks are used just like the waves in The Master, although there the form is superior with no debate. So, the use of the flashbacks and how the tie to the present day search narrative is the special form for me. For the film style, there’s nothing that is the biggest attraction, I mean it’s not like Dunkirk which is a landmark in editing or Roma which is a landmark of photography. It features small “touches” in all of the runtime. Everything from the excellent close ups, to the tracking shots, the the lighting, mise-en-scene and decor add up to a potent aesthetic.
Inherent Vice is a confounding but utterly beguiling triumph of tone. The only Anderson film I’m certain is better than it is There Will Be Blood… and the only Anderson film I’m certain it’s better than is Hard Eight. I saw it twice in theaters, but not since. I’m long overdue for a return engagement.
@Drake— Yep happy to hear that, it’s a tough and challenging beast, but after 3 viewings I feel it’s absolutely rewarding. I’m a lot higher than you on Phantom Thread also, probably about 30 slots, I think it’s a top 30 film of the decade.
@Matt Harris— Very well put, were you’d have it on the decade’s list ? I think it’s in (or close) to top 50 for me.
I had it at #28 when I hastily threw my list together a couple months back.
What did you give The Master in 2012? I’m saying because it was, I do think, the final turning point for me onto the road I’m exploring now as a cinephile.
@Zane– yikes, HR/MS maybe when I first saw it
“In comparison with every other movie out there, even those in the archives, it is a superior work”
Wow. This is topping The Searchers? I’m blown away.
@Zane- meaning high ranking or quality here– I’ll modify here for clarity. Easy on the trolling.
@Zane- I’m all set without these comments- they come off as mean-spirited