Men with power tend to abuse it. No, that’s not a summation of lessons learned in 2017, but rather the staunch thesis that Paul Thomas Anderson has been obsessively examining in different eras and places over the course of his last four movies. It’s an especially clear focus in There Will Be Blood, The Master, and now Phantom Thread, which groups these titles together as a sort of unofficial trilogy wherein men are not only allowed to be jerks, but celebrated for it due to the power they hold in a specific industry. Anderson’s gaze is always turned inward at the enigmatic man that keeps his cards close to the vest, but here, Anderson shows his cards too early.
There are no poker games in the movie to neatly attach the metaphor to (only a bit of backgammon and a lot of dress-making), but poker is clearly what Anderson is playing. He loves to play coy and longs to tease out a reveal in a slow drip that’s intended to keep us guessing less about the actual reveal and more about when the hand will finally be presented to us in full.
But the reveals have been increasingly shrinking in impact, curling inside themselves to make smaller and quieter statements about these powerful men and the jerks they are. Anderson started this latest chapter of his filmography loudly with There Will Be Blood, concluding oil tycoon Daniel Plainview’s descent into destructive demonism with the megalomaniacally madcap milkshake monologue. He then chose a less bombastic finish for The Master, in which tensions between wayward war veteran Freddie and crippling cult leader Dodd came to an ominous head.
In Phantom Thread, the ending is more muted than ever, a final statement that feels like it could have been made 10 minutes into the movie instead of 125 and been no more surprising or unexpected. It’s not that the reveal is minor or insignificant, but that it’s barely a reveal at all.
Anderson telegraphs the peculiarities of the relationship between pompous fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and clumsy waitress-turned-partner Alma (Vicky Krieps) so meticulously and repetitively that by the time the filmmaker is ready to unveil the depths to which these two oddly complement each other, the intended shock of it all is reduced to a simple shrug.
This is the story of a man who was too particular to ever settle down with a single someone and the woman who dished his dictatorial diarrhea right back at him so resolutely and relentlessly that the man decided he kind of liked it. Anderson treats this as a coolly comical conceit, an opportunity to poke fun at the unlikelihood of a relationship that shouldn’t work and wouldn’t work if the people involved weren’t so damned demanding. But even with the extra elements of extreme eccentricities, all of Anderson’s attempted insight basically boils down to “relationships are weird!”
Of course relationships are weird. The more we connect with and commit to one individual, the more we trade of ourselves for something unusual and uncontrollable in return. We become one unit with our partners without losing our individualities that will always keep us at least somewhat separated. Relationships are challenging, confusing, and probably look ridiculous to those outside of them, but on the inside, they can be beautiful.
These are all things that Anderson acknowledges, except he acts as though he’s learning this for the first time, that Reynolds and Alma being bad for each other in one way and good for each other in another way is an observation so particular that it must be shared in precise detail. Their relationship is supposed to be so unique that the result of their final clash is meant to be met with diabolical disbelief, but it feels like only a slight notch above normal at that point.
It’s the kind of oddity that works for Reynolds and Alma and because the entire movie makes clear that tolerance equals admiration among eccentrics, the ending ekes out only an extension of this Thread’s tethered theme. There’s nothing new here, but Anderson stubbornly wears his poker face until the end, bluffing that his proper playfulness has a purpose beyond what was obvious from the start. In this case, he mistakes suppression for subtlety.
Despite these criticisms, one can always count on an Anderson movie to be prettily photographed and Phantom Thread is no exception in that department. Set in 50s England, the images and sounds expertly evoke the period while also taking inspiration from cinema of the time, be it in the forebodingly Sirkian blue skies or the many scenes where either fabrics, flowers, or balloons create a rainbow spectrum that recalls the distinct pop of Technicolor.
The performances are all worthy of great praise, from Day-Lewis’ tightly-wound intensity to Krieps’ devil-may-care gutsiness to Lesley Manville’s tremendously still stare that makes her character, Reynolds’ sister and business associate Cyril, an icily eerie delight. As well, Anderson’s script provides some sharp lines of dialogue that the cast roundly devours. Much of the awkward, observational humour lands cleanly, too.
But for all that works in the movie, it ultimately seems as though Anderson has subdued himself to the point of superfluousness. He’s said all he has to say about unlikable men and the people that willingly stand by them and now he’s certainly said all he has to say about fancy dress-making. The romantic relationship is intended to be the fresh factor here, something that There Will Be Blood didn’t have at all and that The Master only explored in small portions, but it’s never as bizarre as it pretends to be and far from profound.
Anderson’s script even includes an entirely unnecessary framing device that has Alma reflecting on her relationship with Reynolds by a comforting fire. This allows Anderson and Krieps to inject some voiceover narration at times and to provide Alma with an opportunity to speak of her love on her own terms, but we hardly need the relationship spelled out even further. Anderson obviously disagrees.
He spells out, explains, describes, and analyzes the relationship into oblivion, convinced that he’ll eventually stumble upon some unique discovery, later settling for the simplistic admission that lovers do strange things to each other, that cruelty and compassion can sometimes be intertwined in marriage. When Anderson finally lays down his cards, it turns out that he doesn’t have much at all: only a pair in great need of a flush.