Warning: “There Will Be Blood” Spoilers
I sat in stunned bewilderment when the credits rolled on Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film “Phantom Thread,” and this is not an unfamiliar occurrence. The final image of the film brought me back to the bowling alley scene from Anderson’s masterpiece “There Will Be Blood.” Both endings make absurd decisions feel completely natural and warranted. Bashing a man’s head in with a bowling pin sounds like a bad joke, but I did not bat an eye when Daniel Plainview was “finished.” These endings highlight Anderson’s greatest strength - an airtight understanding of the psyches and motivations of his characters. With such control over the story, the writer/director can explore the limits of human behavior while remaining grounded in reality. This dynamic elevates “Phantom Thread” to transcendent levels of filmmaking, placing it firmly within the top tier of the modern master’s filmography.
The psyches in question are that of dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his newfound flame Alma (Vicky Krieps). Reynolds, along with his ice queen sister, Cyril, runs a prestigious dress shop for London’s social elite. On a getaway to his home in the country, Reynolds meets Alma and his career is immediately rejuvenated.
Unsurprisingly, a man named Reynolds Woodcock likes to run a tight ship and the meticulous dedication to his craft creates the major tension and humor of the film. The adage that direction at its core is tone management is perfectly embodied by Anderson with his brilliant mix of humor and drama in “Phantom Thread.” There was consistent laughter in the theater with every instance of Woodcock’s insane focus, but in the back of everyone’s mind was Alma’s longing to become the main focus in his life. As opposed to the faulty mask scene from “Django Unchained,” for example, the comedy in “Phantom Thread” is directly linked to the main drama of the film.
The word I keep coming back to with Anderson’s work on “Phantom Thread” is control, specifically of his characters and their internal decisions. The film opens with a balletic pan through The House of Woodcock with seamstresses walking up stairs in a strangely organized way, so it is completely natural when Alma rails against the rigidity of Woodcock’s life or what she calls his “game.”
An image that has stuck with me since seeing the film is one of its most simple shots - Reynolds and Alma sitting at a table. From Walt and Skyler in Breaking Bad to Lester and Carolyn from “American Beauty,” there is something compelling about a couple sitting down to eat. Tension comes from suppression and the outward view of the characters above the table that does not match the tumultuous emotions below. “Phantom Thread” is no different and the conclusions the film draws regarding marriage will definitely need another watch to completely parse through.
If an auteur film about a dressmaker is not an extremely enticing draw to the theater, the performances of the actors are worth the trip on their own. Daniel Day-Lewis puts in another amazing turn as Reynolds in what he is calling his final film. At this point in his career, Day-Lewis is starting to feel like Lebron James. It is such consistent greatness that looks so effortless that nobody really cares. Vicky Krieps as Alma is the standout performance here, simply by matching Day-Lewis. She holds her own in intense one-on-ones. Finally, the score from Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood is again fantastic, and he looks on his way to an Oscar battle with Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”).
“Phantom Thread” is an amazing movie and one that is essential viewing for a larger audience than just Paul Thomas Anderson fans. The film has a lot to say to those in a relationship or readers stuck in the struggle between work and home. However insightful, I would not recommend it for a first date, or even the first five dates.
Teddy Craven is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.