Phantom Thread strangely endearing

Phantom Thread (IMDB photo)

One of the fun parts of seeing a movie in a theater is overhearing the general thoughts and critiques of other people shortly after the movie. Their opinions are fresh and strong, lacking restraint or any consideration for those who participated in the making of the movie. It's so much fun to hear how people completely love or completely hate a movie. I bring this up because the opinions for Paul Thomas Anderson's newest film, Phantom Thread, were much more negative than positive. People found it boring and confusing, a waste of the zero dollars they spent to see the early screening. And I understand why people wouldn't find the movie as interesting or, frankly, enchanting, as I do. It's a movie that's difficult to fall in love with, but people who do fall for Phantom Thread fall real hard.

Falling for Phantom Thread's means looking beyond the movie’s fine and ornate nature. Anderson has designed every little detail to the point where little passion or excitement exists within the movie. A spurt of anger courtesy Daniel Day-Lewis' well-regarded dress designer Reynolds Woodcock comes across as a shock, because it is legitimately surprising that anyone in this movie has that much fire in them. Most of the film is about avoiding direct conflict; any attempt at an argument are either shot down immediately by Reynolds' sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) or coded beneath general British mannerisms. Even the spark brought by young muse and paramour Alma (Vicky Krieps) is mostly subdued and tied to her comparatively quirky behavior. There is a scarcity of sparks that fly for a love story as ill fated as this one.

And yet the ones that do go off, whether its Reynolds' brief dip into emotion or Alma's eventual breakdown, are more effective because they contrast so greatly against Phantom Thread's reserved tone. Fitting the London milieu, what's said is often far less important than the method of the delivery, and especially the looks that accompany it. Alma is far too quiet to confront someone when she feels slighted, but she is willing to introduce herself forcefully to get her point. Her anger is thunderous, but buried deeply beneath social expectations that it requires a tremendous effort to express. There's so much Alma wants to say, but she's often better served finding unique methods of resolving professional and/or relationship problems. Reynolds has little issue saying whatever comes to mind, employing some particularly cruel barbs to the people around him in a quiet, passive-aggressive fashion. Why so many women fall in love with the aging, cold man is one of Phantom Thread's endearing questions that Anderson answers in a very dark fashion. Despite his bluster, Reynolds is a weak creature, prone to childish acts and crippling depression, a needy being obsessed by a long lost mother. Aided largely by the standard great performance offered by the tremendous Day-Lewis, Reynolds is a fascinatingly ugly character, too vain and particular to be endearing but captivating nonetheless.

Much of Phantom Thread occurs beneath the surface and spirals down from there. Every dress Reynolds makes has a hidden secret sewn in, every character has their own motives for their often selfish actions. Beneath the film's beautiful exterior and glamorous clothing is ugliness and deceit, whether its from Reynolds cruelty or the conditions the women work in to construct their products. The romance between Alma and Reynolds is undercut by insecurity and vanity, with love a secondary motive for their engagement. Hidden within the ugliness and bouts of insanity is a little bit of tenderness and sweetness. The torture Alma and Reynolds put each other through is not rooted in desire or any honest sense of love, but by a mutual necessity for themselves. They each serve the requirements of the other, and the relationship sort of works because of it. The little touches of gentleness almost offset the thematic darkness and the bizarre circumstances surrounding Alma and Reynolds.

Phantom Thread takes a long time to unravel the way it should, and the episodic narrative is difficult to navigate, enough to dissuade people from sticking around until the end. It's a difficult film to watch and become invested in; a person as morally hideous as Reynolds is difficult to stomach, even if he's played by Day-Lewis. But the journey Anderson takes through Reynolds' ego and Alma's possessiveness is tantalizing and engaging,and the performances and cinematography are brilliant. Rarely will something so ugly look this stunning.

Rating: Four and a half out of Five Stars

Ask Away

Target audience: Viewers who are really, really into Paul Thomas Anderson movies.

Take the whole family?: It's best to hire a babysitter and leave the kiddos at home, or stream later in the night.

Theater or Netflix?: Interesting enough for the theater, but waiting for it to stream is just fine as well.

Academy Award odds?: Apparently pretty great. It wouldn't be too surprising for Anderson to pick up at least a writing nod and Daniel Day-Lewis to get nominated for Best Actor. It would be great if Lesley Manville got some recognition for Best Supporting Actress as well, and the movie will likely get a Best Picture nomination.

Watch this as well?: The last collaboration between Anderson and Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood, is a classic. It's also a little reminiscent of Federico Fellini's great 8 ½.

Rating: R

Run time: 130 minutes

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off