Written and Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
The last collaboration between P.T. Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis saw the method actor playing a terrifying interpretation of an all-American man: Daniel Plainview, an oil businessman who’s not afraid to throw a punch. Phantom Thread stars Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a figure who stands in stark contrast to, yet can nonetheless be described as a distant cousin of Plainview’s.
Woodcock is a leading, high-end dressmaker in 1950s London . He seeks beauty rather than wealth and his story is scored with classical music as delicate as his needle work. Day-Lewis characters, however, are compelling in that they are reminiscent of bombastic dictators: they have vision and charm, but can also be brutal and narcissistic. The jump from playing characters like Plainview and (Gangs of New York’s) Bill the Butcher, to Woodcock, can thus be described as a simple jump in political ideologies: Day-Lewis has gone from portraying a nativist dictator, to an anarcho-capitalist dictator, to a satin, aristocratic dictator.
Understanding Woodcock as part of this Day-Lewisian, masculinist-dictatorial tradition is important for appreciating the development of his character over the course of Phantom Thread. The story follows the course of his relationship with Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps). The initial conflict in this relationship comes out through Woodcock’s unique brand of hegemonic masculinity. He falls in love with Elson for her beauty (as a potential dress model), not for her attractiveness, a fine yet important distinction that means he objectifies her, but in a way that is very distinct from the objectification of the traditional male gaze.
The more time Elson spends with Woodcock, the more intertwined and mysterious their relationship becomes. The film ultimately ends with a twist: a drastic one, yet one that never fully sheds light on the film’s opaque logic. It is a strong, visually stunning ending, and coupled with Day-Lewis’ typically charismatic acting, it makes Phanton Thread an intriguing, must-see work. The script is not without it’s shortcomings, however. The film is somehow most mysterious, not at the beginning or end, but in the middle. Elson, essentially becomes integrated into Woodcock’s world to such a degree that it’s unclear how much she is happily involved with and how much she feel’s used by him. While this vagueness is justified (it helps set up the twist at the film’s end, and is perhaps an accurate portrayal of Elson’s mindset), it nonetheless makes parts of the viewing experience less than exciting.
Phantom Thread lacks of the silliness of Punch Drunk Love, but it is not without humor. It lacks the intensity of There Will be Blood, yet its employment of violence manages to be more captivating. If historical fiction, with a quasi-magical-realist level of mystery appeals to you, you should find Phantom Thread to be a frustrating, but ultimately rewarding piece.