Review: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Phantom Thread’ isn’t magic

An open letter to Paul Thomas Anderson

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 3/6/18 12:10am

Dear Paul Thomas Anderson,

I want to begin by affirming how much I respect your work. Although the rest of this letter will not be kind to your newest film, “Phantom Thread,” I don’t want you to doubt my admiration for you as a filmmaker. In fact, it is precisely due to this admiration that I found “Phantom Thread” difficult to watch.

What happened, exactly? You, like so many who are pre-emptively declared wunderkinds, had a promising start with “Hard Eight” and “Boogie Nights.” But as M. Night Shyamalan has demonstrated, it is easy to squander a promising start. Instead of following Shyamalan’s path, you avoided the pitfalls and directed your magnum opus, the bittersweet, multi-stranded tale of chance, fate and sadness called “Magnolia.” Rather than rest easy on your laurels, you then proceeded to make your strangest project to date: the Adam Sandler-starring, romantic and dark comedy “Punch-Drunk Love,” arguably your most subversive film. You followed it up with “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master,” two films that feel like masterpieces, the real deal.

Then, just as you were riding the crest of your great creative wave, you made 2014’s “Inherent Vice” — and I indulged you. It wasn’t awful; it was funny in parts and had a few good performances. However, amidst all the on-screen chaos, it was hard to find the voice I had admired in your previous work. But I thought to myself, “Anyone who is this fresh and exciting with each new film is bound to make the rare dud.” Thus, I hoped everything would be back on track with “Phantom Thread.” Sadly, it was not.

That said, Jonny Greenwood’s score was expectedly pulsing, mesmerizing and hypnotic in a way that feels both decidedly modern and oddly classical. I’m starting to think that you’ve noticed what an asset Greenwood is to your films; you’ve highlighted the score so thoroughly in “Phantom Thread” that it sometimes overwhelms the emotions and drama playing out on-screen. Of course, I can hardly blame you for recognizing talent.

In addition, your collective cinematography experiment seems to have paid off. “Phantom Thread” originally generated buzz for not having an official cinematographer; instead, it reflected the combined effort of many professionals. At the time, this seemed like a terribly risky idea, but you would never know while watching the film. It is as beautiful as any of your other films, rich with color, mood and texture.

And, of course, it comes as a surprise to no one that Daniel Day-Lewis is superb as the main character, fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock. Woodcock, despite being the most respected couturier in 1950s London, is essentially a petulant child in the body of 60-something year-old man. He eventually falls in love with Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who simultaneously becomes his muse and his greatest distraction. The rest of the film follows their toxic relationship, ostensibly filled with turmoil but actually filled with tedium.

Day-Lewis has declared that this will be his last film role. Given that he’s already “retired” about a dozen times, I’m not holding my breath. But if this really is his swan song, he could do worse. Indeed, most of the lead actors are perfectly serviceable; Lesley Manville has a few good lines as Woodcock’s sister, Cyril, and Krieps tries to breathe life into a frankly underwritten character.

Try as the actors might, though, these are all horrible characters, and no amount of method acting shenanigans can circumvent that. As I’ve said in reviews prior, the fact that they are all reprehensible need not be a problem. “Trainspotting” is populated by morally bankrupt characters, yet I’d still argue it is the best film of 1996. The difference lies entirely in the framing. “Trainspotting” understands that its characters are deeply flawed, and it comments on this in fascinating and engaging ways. “Phantom Thread,” on the other hand, is too slow, staid and static to make an interesting film.

The relationship between Woodcock and Alma is intentionally textbook. Yet, the cinematography and framing aim to be so objective that it’s almost impossible to tell what the point of depicting such a relationship could possibly be. I’m sure you thought you were commenting on abusive relationships, male misogyny, tortured artistry and obsession. Yet your love for ambiguity has proven to be detrimental.

If you want to make something reminiscent of a European art house film, be my guest. I have loved such films time and time again. But know that when directors make a film that is overtly cryptic, sometimes the audience fills in the blanks with their own wild imagination, resulting in a wonderful symbiotic relationship between art and spectator, and sometimes those blanks will remain just that — blank. None of this is helped, frankly, by the fact that you’ve chosen to focus on one of the most insufferable topics imaginable: the woes of a petty, privileged artist in 1950s Britain.

Once again, I say this all with a heavy heart. American cinema needs directors like you, Mr. Anderson. It needs filmmakers who succeed by sticking to their uncompromising, bizarre visions. Because of that, I’m absolutely willing to forgive you for making a film that is as self-indulgent and torpid as “Phantom Thread.” That said, I’d like to remind you already made this film; in 2007; it also starred Day-Lewis as a man twisted by his own obsessions. “There Will Be Blood” remains one of the best films of the 21st century, and by watching it again, perhaps we can rediscover your old magic together.


Sebastian Wurzrainer ’20