Inherent Vice, 2014.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jena Malone, and Martin Short.
In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.
Reviewer’s note: I have no interest in describing the plot of Inherent Vice in this review. If you want to know what it’s about, there are many places to get that information online.
Expectations are a baggage which, despite best efforts, you sometimes cannot help but bring to a first viewing, especially if that first viewing is for the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson. He’s a director who has produced films of startling magnitude time after time, and as I sat down to watch this, his seventh film, I was guilty of having it all planned out in my mind as to what I would expect.
First mistake. If I know anything about Anderson it’s that his films are told in the way they need to be told and never in a style which befits an ideal of directorial checkboxes. As I left the cinema I knew only three things, namely; I had very little idea as to what I had just seen, I had absolutely no idea how to review the film, and I simply had to watch it again as soon as possible.
I certainly knew I liked the film but I could not say why. On the first viewing I laughed a lot but I confess as the film went on I had lost all threads of the plot and watching on a purely visceral level; that, I know, is not good enough for the movie which was in my top five most anticipated of 2014. Typically, the UK gets the film in 2015 buried away at the end of January, but that’s an issue for another time.
On a rewatch less than 48 hours later I feel comfortable discussing Inherent Vice but in no way do I feel the depths and layers can be realised in only two viewings. The plot which seemed so utterly unfathomable at first made much more sense, but I struck me that, despite this being Anderson’s most plot heavy feature, the workings and comprehension of the plot really make little difference to the qualities of the film. Certainly, I (mostly) understood why Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) goes from place A to B to C and meets with the many, many characters in this story, but that’s just surface level; the real joy is found in how Anderson takes us on this sun-soaked L.A. noir mystery.
All the trappings of a film noir are there; a P.I. looking for a missing man, voice over, a femme fatal who he’ll do anything for, multiple characters with money and corruption on their minds, and there is dirt on near-enough everyone; but to Anderson “noir is a mood” as he said in a recent interview, and the mood here is the period of the end of the 1960s where Charles Manson is on everyone’s mind, hippies like Doc and that culture are running out of time and America is moving away from free-love idealism to post-Vietnam numbness. In Anderson’s film the audience are along for the ride and just as confused as Doc, never knowing anything more than our ‘hero’ and being privy to the same information, confirmation and contradiction as he. The ride is exactly what Anderson wants to takes us on and not to get embroiled in the narrative; it may be the most laid-back detective story I’ve seen since The Long Goodbye (and we know Anderson’s inspiration from Robert Altman from Magnolia) and getting lost (Doc is the worst note taker!) is part of the mood of the pot smoking lead, and of the time itself. Anderson frequently shows us Doc reacting to situations, the opposite of The Master where we were looking at other people’s reactions to the Joaquin Phoenix character, Freddie Quell. Again, this is about telling the story in the way it needs to be told, not copying the same style to suit all narratives.
Aside from the whodunit story, above all Anderson’s film is one of longing and yearning. There is no monetary reward for Doc in the film, no Maltese Falcon to track down or insurance claims to get rich from, but the chance to reconnect with Shasta, a former love whose involvement with a millionaire property tycoon ignites the story. The only reason Doc does what he does in the entire movie is to help out this former girlfriend who may not even be right for him; just look at the way he holds on to her car as she drives away at the start of the film, that tells you all you need to know along with Phoenix’s look of utter perplexion as to where to begin. The notion extends to the Owen Wilson character, a hippie sax player turned government informant who wants nothing but to get back to the family he left behind. Both men are out of time, looking to reconnect.
In a story with many characters, two stand out above all others, namely Doc and Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen with James Brolin in a role he was practically created to play. One a hippie, the other a hardnosed “walking civil rights violation” cop; one with long hair, loose clothes, pot smoking and easy going, the other with a flat top haircut, straight suits, and eats in a restaurant where he likes the respect. The two men are friends, but to me they seemed like the same man having gone down two different paths and are now meeting in the middle in 1970. If ever the changing mood of the era was captured, it’s in a scene towards the end where Bjornsen eats enough pot to make up for all those missed years. Funny on a first watch, deeply saddening on a second.
Unlike most lead characters in an Anderson movie, Doc is mostly unbroken and is not looking for forgiveness or salvation, and is generally a good guy even if his methods are unlike any P.I. I’ve seen before. Anderson frequently shows us Doc reacting to situations, the opposite of The Master where we were looking at other people’s reactions to the Joaquin Phoenix character, Freddie Quell. Moreover, Anderson employs a style unseen in his films to date; mostly single takes with a slow push in on conversations, forcing the viewer to digest large chunks of information which may or may not be relevant, or simple two shots of simple exposition from characters we may never meet again. There are many scenes of just people talking but the Anderson’s camera placement means a scene often starts out one way but ends up somewhere else entirely, without a cut made. The camera is slow and takes it time, much like the film, and Robert Elswit’s soft 70’s lighting paired with 35mm film puts a dreamy haze on the frame, forever keeping us in Doc’s state of mind.
Inherent Vice will divide some audiences if they’re looking for reason, resolution and thrill, or stand-out sequences the likes of which Anderson has put on film many times before and has taken our breath away with every repeat viewing of Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood. For me it’s another blisteringly brilliant piece of film making which I didn’t see coming, and which I cannot wait to watch again. The reason why Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the truly great American directors of ‘my generation’ is living in every frame of this film.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.