Originally this was going to be another double feature entitled Two World War Twos wherein I would review Darkest Hour and Dunkirk. I’ll be honest, I’m somewhat burnt out on World War II (#askaJew) and wasn’t particularly looking forward to two dour features to slog through on the subject. I had been looking forward to Phantom Thread because I’m generally a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson and it just looked like a beautiful project.
The TL;DR is that this is not a good movie. It could be. Between Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Vicky Krieps there is an incredible amount of talent in front of and behind the camera. But this movie falls flat. Not only does it fail to be an interesting movie, it introduces so many (pardon the pun) threads that don’t pay off that it fails to be a great deal of interesting movies.
I knew there would be trouble when the movie sort of flounders about until the half-way mark before it seems to realize what kind of film it’s trying to be. I knew there were bigger problems when it dropped that idea completely and went back to floundering. And then back to the other story-line. This thing is a mess. It’s actually difficult to critique this movie without giving a complete breakdown of the entire film and I don’t want to spoil every single beat for anyone who will still see it. So I’ll see what I can do.
The movie starts off with the promise of so many other Paul Thomas Anderson films, as a dark yet honestly curious study of a man and his obsession. It’s the story we get in There Will Be Blood and The Master. But Reynolds Woodcock’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) all-consuming obsession with fashion never blossoms beyond a note on a character outline. We never actually see him really design, or love designing, or even love fashion. There’s nothing in him in the clothing we see on-screen, and the camera itself doesn’t seem very interested in exploring his works. Between cosplay and fashion history books and even Project Runway, everything I know about designers is that they have ideas, grandiose or personal, that they try to incorporate into clothing. Woodcock comes off as more of a pompous aesthete than a creator. He seems to love beauty, but has no sign of creativity.
Even his choice of muse is muddled. Alma, played by Vicky Krieps who is this film’s one saving grace, arrives in a scene of clumsiness. Woodcock pulls her into his life with what may have been intended as charm but comes across as countless red flags, and attempts to make her beautiful. Or rather, just has her around while he ignores her and makes clothing the same as he did before she arrives. It becomes clear that he doesn’t respect her tastes, doesn’t appreciate her strong will when it comes up against his own, and doesn’t even find her particularly beautiful. There’s a scene when he’s taking her measurements for the first time and comments on her lack of breasts. She apologizes but he says that she’s perfect (fine) and that it’s his job to make her beautiful (ugh).
This all goes on for just over an hour until Alma gets fed up. Good, because Reynolds is an ass and this movie has been bland. So now the film begins to rework itself into something akin to a Hitchcockian thriller. Wonderful! Except it’s not. No one ends up hating anyone enough for death to be on the table. No one is greedy enough for extreme cases of betrayal to occur. And no one is quick-witted enough for there to be endearing. If you’ve ever wondered what a Hitchcock film would be like if you managed to remove all traces of humor and suspense then the latter half of Phantom Thread is the film for you! Spoiler alert: it’s dull.
The film drops the pretense of being a Hitchcock homage after a bit because it seems to grow bored with itself, and sort of shuffles through a metaphorical desk of ideas, trying to find what point it may have originally started with. But it’s a lost cause and Phantom Thread just dodders along until it eventually just ends.
The film doesn’t even look that great, which was shocking. It’s A) a Paul Thomas Anderson movie and B) a movie about fashion design in the glamorous world of 1950s post-war London. I even commented during the movie that it just didn’t look that good. Part of it may be that the cinematography design was done by committee, and the visuals suffer for it. There’s absolutely nothing evocative about the images in the movie, and even Anderson normally great eye for framing is left out.
It’s not the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I didn’t even hate it. But I don’t think there’s a single thing about this movie that I liked. Beyond that, it’s frustrating as all hell. You’d think by the telegraphed nods to genres and directors that this movie would know what it wants to be, but it doesn’t. Part of the frustration is that it half-heatedly attempts to be a half-dozen things and ends up failing at every single one of them. If you’re a big Paul Thomas Anderson and/or Daniel Day-Lewis fan I suppose you may want to see this. Odds are you will see it regardless of what I say, as it hasn’t been getting awful reviews elsewhere. But I like both those people and I think that if Daniel Day-Lewis is really retiring he deserves to go out on a grander note than this.