As far as American directors go, Paul Thomas Anderson is in a league of his own. No director, save for Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, has a style so distinct; seasoned movie watchers will be able to identify a PTA ‘joint’ the moment it begins. But, what further separates Anderson from his peers is his willingness to bring his unique style to different genres. Whether it is a period piece, romantic comedy, character drama, or neo-noir, Anderson’s films are often one-of-a-kind. With Phantom Thread, PTA steps into a new genre – the Gothic period romance – but, in doing so, makes the genre all his own.
With a story more along the lines of Fifty Shades of Grey than Jane Eyre, Phantom Thread follows Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a celebrated fashion designer who dresses the ladies of high society while leading a quiet, tightly scheduled private life in 1950s London. He finds a new muse in Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who (quite literally) stumbles into his life. Before long, the two are living together, but as Alma yearns to exert her independence, the domineering Reynolds finds his work lacking, which he blames on his new love.
The film asks: what do we give up when we enter a new relationship, and is true love really worth those compromises? But to go into further detail about how it explores this question would be a huge disservice to the audience member. This is a highly unusual period drama, which takes bizarre, surprising, and even sinister turns as it follows the squabbling lovers.
As a filmmaker, Anderson’s technical talents are unrivaled, and fully on display in Phantom Thread. Every single second of Phantom Thread feels thoroughly planned and perfectly executed, with top-notch editing, gorgeous costumes, and impeccable production design proudly displayed in virtually every shot.
Anderson also, famously, shot the film himself, and the cinematography on display is nothing short of reference point. It’s a testament to his natural talent as a filmmaker that, in his first time shooting a feature film, the cinematography stands out as the year’s best. Anderson’s frequent composer, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, also delivers a stellar score, that plays in virtually every scene and carries the emotional heft of the film on its back. Under Anderson, all of these individual factors merge together perfectly, creating one of the best-directed films of 2017.
Much has been made about this being Daniel Day-Lewis’ farewell film. What will likely surprise audiences, however, is that this is a largely quiet, understated part – the polar opposite of Day-Lewis’ Oscar winning turn as Daniel Plainview in his last collaboration with PTA, There Will Be Blood. But Day-Lewis is, obviously, terrific with the subtle material he’s given, conveying paragraphs of exposition with a mere glance. This is also possibly the funniest role he’s ever played. But in this film, Day-Lewis takes a step back and gives the spotlight to the women on both sides of him.
On his left, newcomer Vicky Krieps makes a lasting impression as Alma, the woman who bewitches Reynolds and subtly fights to control his life. It’s a layered, brilliantly executed performance that’s a thrilling mystery for to solve. Despite narrating the film, Alma’s motivations remain a mystery to the viewers until the very last scene, and it’s a genuine thrill to see Krieps slowly unveil more information about her character. Meanwhile, Lesley Manville delivers one of 2017’s strongest comedic performances’ as Reynolds right-hand woman and sister, a steely manager to her brother’s employees and lovers. Her deadpan line deliveries and subtle insults are a complete joy to behold.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent string of films are linked by how unusual they are. The Master was a largely plot-less exploration of religion as shown through the relationship between two men, while Inherent Vice had almost too much plot, and prided itself on not the details of the story but the overall mood that was carried throughout. Phantom Thread is somewhere between those two, while being no less unusual. It is a deeply erotic film, but one that has no onscreen sex or even really hints at the intimate lives of its two leads.
Its story is loosely structured, peeking in on various episodes of Reynolds’ life with Alma. It’s romantic one moment, funny the next, and isn’t afraid to become weird, dark, uncomfortable, or even somewhat creepy. It is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, and it’s as good as we’ve come to expect from the best American director working today.
Overall rating: 10 out of 10.
Phantom Thread is currently in select theaters.