The words “phantom thread” could figure in the title of every film by Paul Thomas Anderson, a portraitist of insularity who specializes in characters with longings they can barely understand, the fulfillment of which always seem just out of reach. Spanning various periods in American history, with a recent stop off in London, his films are intimate political parables, imagining what the postwar disenfranchisement of the 1950s or the spiritual hangover of the 1970s and 1980s might’ve felt like from the inside of some of society’s most celebrated as well as most troubled and disrespected people.
Boogie Nights and Magnolia are still touted in certain nostalgic quarters as Anderson’s best films, but they’re actually his least typical—experiments in adapting others’ sensibilities, undertaken by a young and unusually gifted artist. Those films are declarative, while Anderson’s aesthetic is truly emboldened by the pathos of recession—represented by tight framing, quietly incredible camera pirouettes, and curtly fanciful and flamboyantly loaded dialogue that suggests submerged or unknowable information.
Anderson’s sense of community, which is shown to both affirm and attack a man’s sense of self, has undergone a seismic change over the years. The families of Boogie Nights and Magnolia are overstuffed with a screenwriter’s sense of quirk, where There Will Be Blood is contrived in its elemental sparseness. Then came The Master, in which fullness and sparseness were merged, rendering on screen an America of impenetrable myths and secrets, which is understood to have been fashioned by influential men who’re as susceptible to the country’s lies as any of their most gullible marks. Anderson’s political parables underline the gulf existing between private and public power and between internal and external theater, dramatizing these constructs with an unmooring empathy that enlightens a universal loneliness.
On its self-pitying terms, Magnolia is a wounding, dizzying, and even profound experience—the work of a virtuoso who’s desperate to be heard yet hemmed in by self-consciousness. Anderson attempts to fashion something as momentous as the art of heroes such as Robert Altman, Raymond Carver, Martin Scorsese, and Hal Ashby, and this obsession with greatness weighs him as well as the film down. Following a few dozen citizens of San Fernando Valley over a 24-hour period, Magnolia overflows with overwritten proclamations of love, operatic tracking shots, wonderful Aimee Mann songs, diseased patriarchs, and belabored parallels between young and old characters—all capped off with a deus ex machina that’s still audaciously poignant. The film’s structure is subtle, however, as the narratives run in concentric loops, climaxing multiple times—about once every hour—and suggesting a musical album with recurring bridges and choruses. As obnoxious as Magnolia is at its low points—such as nearly every scene featuring Melora Walters as a cokehead with daddy issues—it has an adventurous vibrancy that can no longer be taken for granted in American cinema, and was created by an ultra-earnest Anderson who no longer quite exists.
Boogie Nights (1997)
If you were a male American filmmaker coming of age in the 1990s, chances are that you had a coke- and cock-addled crime epic percolating within you, as every white dude wanted to be the Martin Scorsese of Goodfellas or the Quentin Tarantino of Pulp Fiction. Yet Boogie Nights remains an amazing achievement for Anderson’s affection for his characters and for his prodigious command of scale and tone. Following a family of porn filmmakers in the late ’70s, as the purity of their trade is threatened by the emergence of VHS, Anderson laces ’90s-era crime-film clichés with rapt longing. Rising porn star Dirk Diggler’s (Mark Wahlberg) need to prove himself is indistinguishable from Anderson’s own fragile precocity, and, whenever you feel that you’ve got the filmmaker pegged, he pivots. A tasteless subplot featuring real-life porn star Nina Hartley (who has superb comic timing) has a shocking climax, and the film grows hopeful just when it appears determined to plunge itself into hell. As livewire as Anderson’s staging is, his kinship with his actors is more impressive. Wahlberg has never been more urgent, and Burt Reynolds is accorded the iconic treatment he deserves, giving a performance of autumnal majesty. Julianne Moore is stripped of her actorly defenses, and dozens of other repertory players hit notes of wounded and exhilarating grace. Anderson tries to be a bad boy but settles, thank God, for being a humanist.
Hard Eight (1996)
Anderson’s first feature film, written and directed when he was 24, could reasonably inspire envy in veteran journeymen. The filmmaker’s control over his medium is astonishing, as there isn’t a superfluous line of dialogue or a wasted gesture or camera movement. The theme is the same as that of nearly every Anderson film, following a makeshift family that’s assembled around a commanding and mysterious personality, and which is imperiled when something floats up from the patriarch’s past. Anderson masterfully weaves two nesting love stories—between a surrogate father and son and between a drifter and a waitress—as danger gradually pushes an old con man to confess to his affection for his protégé. Fittingly, given the vulnerability of the men involved, Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) opens up to John (John C. Reilly) over the phone, where they both feel somewhat safe. Yet this physical distance is heartbreaking, and establishes a motif that still governs Anderson’s cinema: of men who need love so badly they push it away.
There Will Be Blood (2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Daniel Plainview, a California oil tycoon in the early 20th century, is remarkable on a primal level, but—like Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Inherent Vice—it’s a little too in love with its own distaff purity. Day-Lewis is more surprising in Phantom Thread, a richer film that’s nonetheless unimaginable without There Will Be Blood’s experimentation in austerity, as particularly embodied by Jonny Greenwood’s jangly score, which exacerbates the film’s curdled American-western atmospherics. Certain sequences are among Anderson’s finest, such as the existentially jittery explosion of an oil rig and a haunting, fleeting image of Daniel feeding liquor to a baby whom he adopts as a surrogate son. But the film’s theme is pat, connecting the rise of the oil business with the ascension of organized church as representing the simultaneous birth of modern America’s power and hypocritical piousness. The violent ending provides a catharsis that releases the audience from the film’s disenchanted spell—the sort of escape that Anderson has since refused to provide.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
With Punch-Drunk Love, characters began to talk less in Anderson’s cinema, the musicality of dialogue emphasized via sharp punctuations of silence. Emotions are often channeled in Punch-Drunk Love through explosions of color that contrast with the sterile spaces of shopping centers and drab cracker-box apartments. When characters express themselves directly in this film, their confessions feel hard-earned—indicative of broken people struggling to experience connectivity with a degree of dignity. Anderson’s camera correspondingly calms down, using negative space to complement and exacerbate the tension of silence and repression. Another source of tension is the stunt casting of Adam Sandler as a romantically inept oddball who’s emotionally castrated by sisters who’re presented by Anderson—in a gesture that over-telegraphs his hand—with scalding contempt. The film refines the mother obsession of Boogie Nights, which has evolved throughout Anderson’s career. In Punch-Drunk Love, a broad dichotomy exists between diseased matriarchal figures and soul-nourishing mates.