Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps and Lesley Manville
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Running Time: 130 minutes
It’s difficult to say negative things about a Paul Thomas Anderson film. They’re so meticulously groomed by the writer and director that you could say even a bad movie on his end is still gorgeously filmed, well-acted, and rich in metaphor. His films generally aren’t for casual audiences and are geared more towards cinephiles. He’s had a previous fascination with broken individuals looking to redeem themselves or allowing audiences to watch them further wallow in self-pity and self-harm. “Phantom Thread” finds itself once again in that territory, but instead of praising it alongside other cinephiles, I find myself siding with casual audiences.
The flawed individual in “Phantom Thread” is Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), a 1950’s fashion designer for rich Londoners. Like any self-proclaimed master artist, he obsesses over his work, to the point where he becomes infuriated if the dress buyer doesn’t wear the outfit right. His army of elderly female assistants packs into his townhouse silently helping craft his latest masterpiece, but they know him better than anyone, remaining silent and doing as they’re told. Despite ruling with an unspoken iron fist, Woodcock is a bit of romantic. Just a bit.
He enchants a waitress, Alma (Krieps), but what makes him attracted to her isn’t necessarily her looks or her obedience, it’s her rebellious nature. He seems to enjoy her possessiveness, when she’s sometimes intentionally obnoxious and the fact that she’ not about to run out the door when he drops a mean retort or insults her. It’s a relationship that borders on abusive, for both sides, and sometimes makes the argument these two are so crazy, they’re simply meant to be together. It’s an unhealthy bond that should be a thrill to watch, but it doesn’t fester fast enough.
As the film progresses, it’s almost as if Anderson isn’t concerned about whether or not we’re still paying attention. He lingers on long uncomfortable silences, focuses on facial distaste by the characters, and sometimes lets inconsequential dialogue envelop the scene. Some of these moments are played for guilty laughs or showcasing Woodcock’s self-absorbed nature, but the relentless nature of it between genuinely interesting scenes are sure to push anyone’s patience. It’s almost as if “Phantom Thread,” unlike its main character, isn’t self-confident enough in its own craft.
Instead of establishing mood or creating drama between conflicts, “Phantom Thread” likes to show instead of tell. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that because that’s what a good filmmaker does, but sometimes what it shows us, tells us nothing. The final moments of this film seem to justify a lot of the build-up, but never the snail’s crawl pace of storytelling. Despite only being a hair longer than two hours, its flow felt like it was heading for a three-hour marathon. By the time it seems to have its stride, the credits begin to roll.
It’s unfortunate that one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen will end his career on a less than memorable film. Day-Lewis’ performance, as is any other film he’s ever been in, is the true highlight of the film. Much like his other performances, he stretches the skin of his character over his body, immersing himself in this narcissistic fashion designer. Outside of Day-Lewis’ performance, Anderson’s keen directorial vision, and a deliciously twisted ending, “Phantom Thread” is sometimes tedious and a bit too full of itself.