Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine someone who possesses the basic critical tools to analyze cinema, yet has never heard the name “Paul Thomas Anderson.” (Does such a person exist? Let’s assume for the sake of discussion that they do.) Then invite them over for a double feature: Boogie Nights first, followed by the auteur’s most recent film, Phantom Thread. Watch both movies. Then ask them: who made these two films? The same director, or a different one?
Perhaps our hypothetical PTA-newbie would find some point of commonality between the two films, but I’d wager they’d think the films made by different auteurs. The two pictures—one from the beginning of Anderson’s career, and the most recent film he’s made—are a study in contrasts, as different as the worlds of 1970s California porn and midcentury London fashion design. Boogie Nights bursts with life; it’s kinetic, thrilling, and even joyful, the work of a young filmmaker who’s just beginning to feel his powers and revel in all the amazing shit he can do behind the camera. Whereas Phantom Thread is a far more precise film, the work of a filmmaker who is still in control of all his elements, but uses them far more carefully and judiciously. One film pulls us in, sweeps us along with its momentum before we’ve had a chance to think critically about what the film is and what it’s doing to us; the other pushes us away and asks us to look from a distance, puzzling over what we see. It’s a contrast that’s indicative of Anderson’s body of work as a whole, his development as an artist. Anderson’s films used to dazzle; now they largely befuddle. It’s as if he began his career as one thing and became something else: a glorious amalgam of Scorsese and Altman and Tarantino to begin with, PTA now seems to be some kind of 21st-century reincarnation of Stanley Kubrick at his most perplexing.
I imagine this is what Owen Glieberman had in mind when he confessed in 2012, shortly after the release of The Master, that he’d fallen out of love with Anderson’s movies. Glieberman was an early booster of Boogie Nights, but since then the filmmaker had become cold, grandiose, and unpleasant. And Glieberman knew exactly where Anderson had begun to go wrong: the last 30 minutes of Magnolia. Any Anderson fan will know exactly what Glieberman is talking about. It’s the part of the movie when frogs begin to fall from the sky.
I don’t agree with Glieberman—I love PTA’s post-Boogie Nights work, the final reel of Magnolia in particular—but he’s right about one thing: there was a fundamental shift happening in that rain of frogs. The frogs are the hinge point upon which PTA’s body of work turns, the moment when he transitioned from “Wow!” to “Huh?” Every one of Anderson’s films since has had some version of that bizarre moment: an element, perhaps several, that simply refuses to behave, that stubbornly won’t compute even after everything else has been accounted for. For better or worse, to understand Anderson’s creative project, you have to be able to get down with the frogs.
I associate Paul Thomas Anderson’s work with what I can only call “WTF moments,” moments when your first and sometimes only reaction is: “What was that?” or “Why did that just happen?” The rain of frogs in Magnolia, the harmonium and car crash in Punch Drunk Love, the explosion of violence in the final moments of There Will Be Blood. Sometimes, as with The Master and Inherent Vice, the WTF moment is basically the whole movie.
Anderson’s detractors may point to these moments as emblems of his grandiosity, his pretentiousness. I view them as evidence of an overriding thematic concern, a thread that runs through all his films. Puzzling moments in Anderson’s films aren’t simply one of the director’s methods; they are, at heart, his subject matter. No filmmaker currently working is as dedicated to attempting to represent everything that’s ineffable, inscrutable, and unaccountable in human existence. Anderson’s characters are held in thrall to forces beyond their ken. They have their petty dramas: their dreams, their strivings, their pain, their mistakes, their loves—and then comes the rain of frogs. In Anderson’s work, human fates are constantly being undone by things that fall from the sky.
Or things that bubble up from within. Because alongside the rain of frogs in Magnolia, the other central image of Anderson’s oeuvre is the geyser of oil in There Will Be Blood—an explosion of submerged material that kills, lights on fire, makes one man rich, but strikes his boy deaf. The gusher is one of Anderson’s best scenes in perhaps his best movie, and at first glance it would seem to be yet another example of the numinous exploding into human existence, the inbreaking of God, or nature, or fate. Except that Anderson later links the oil symbolically to the darkness of Daniel Plainview’s soul, a submerged black sludge that occasionally explodes in outbursts of unpredictable violence.
This is the other meaning of the inscrutable in Anderson’s work: sometimes the things we can’t understand come not from the sky, but from within, from the self. Anderson’s characters are, quite often, strange to themselves—from Barry Egan in Punch Drunk Love (“I’m looking at your face and I just want to smash it you’re so pretty”) to Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood (“I have a competition in me”) to The Master‘s Freddie Quell (“I got no reason, I’m a fool”) and Lancaster Dodd (“We are in the middle of a battle that’s trillions of years in the making and it’s bigger than both of us”). It even applies to the characters in Boogie Nights, whose motivations and inner drives are just as mysterious as those in Anderson’s supposedly “cold” later work, after you strip away all the hyperactive cinematic tricks that make that earlier picture so engaging.
Whether it bubbles up from within or falls from the sky, the inexplicable in Anderson’s work is something that defies human attempts to understand or control it. Instead, we the audience get the sense that the ineffable something lurking just outside the characters’ perception, making and unmaking their lives, is something that exists independently of them, which will use them and discard them at will. Consider Ricky Jay in Magnolia: “And the book says we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Or Daniel Plainview again, just after he’s given into his inner darkness by murdering Eli Sunday: “I’m finished.”
Which brings us, at last, to Phantom Thread. (Note: I’m going to discuss the plot and situations of the movie now. It’s not really spoilable, but if you like to go into films knowing next to nothing, this would be a good time to duck out.) Our reviewer, Rachel Woldum, said something very perceptive about it: “It’s a film that presents a foreign and unorthodox scenario but executes it with such precision and specificity that the characters’ actions and reactions—despite being consistently unexpected—feel deeply authentic.” She’s absolutely right. Phantom Thread, like most of Anderson’s work since Boogie Nights, is difficult to relate to on any basic human level. Few of us (I’d wager) have ever been part of a bizarre psychosexual love triangle with a brilliant artist and his sister. The premise is strange and rich with implication, the filmmaking is as impeccable as Reynolds Woodcock’s dress designs, and the narrative is full of intrusions of the inscrutable and ineffable. Phantom Thread is tightly controlled, like Reynolds—yet it also, like Alma, refuses to behave or be bounded.
The characters are driven by unaccountable motives. Alma’s background is mysterious, her accent impossible to place, and her attraction to the prickly Woodcock difficult to fully explain. Like Anderson characters before her (Lancaster Dodd, for one), she seems to be driven in part by the challenge of Reynolds, the difficult task of mastering him. And Reynolds, for his part, is possessed by drives he can’t explain, yet can’t help submitting to: his love of beauty, his perfectionism, his occasional bouts of anger at Alma and at his sister. Again we have images of submergence, hidden things: secret messages sewn into garments, fashion models dressing behind walls and viewed through peepholes. There are also inexplicable things that come from without to make and unmake lives: the sudden relationship between Alma and Woodcock (“I have the feeling I’ve been looking for you for a long time”), the memory and ghost of Woodcock’s beloved mother, and Woodcock’s hunger—hunger for food, hunger for work, hunger for sex, hunger, even, for poison—which seems to come both from within and without, using him up and discarding him again.
It’s confounding, to be sure—but it’s not cold, nor is it even necessarily impossible to identify with, as Anderson’s detractors might claim. To borrow an insight from Jonathan Rosenbaum about the films of Stanley Kubrick, it just isn’t true that Anderson’s films lack emotion. His movies are full of emotions; it’s simply that the emotions on screen are so convoluted, so tangled and masked, that we approach them with trepidation and awe, awakened to everything that is strange in life, in others, and in ourselves. Identifying with the characters on the screen, we remember all the times we have acted in ways that were confounding to ourselves, all the times we witnessed something—an act of kindness, of violence, an event of random fortune or mischance—that seemed vital and real even as we knew we couldn’t explain it.
Anderson’s films are often inexplicable, but they also feel true—and it is often that which is most inexplicable about them that feels the most true. In the recent film, the moment that is the clearest example of this is when Woodcock, feverish and delirious, sees the ghost of his mother standing at the edge of his room. “I love you,” he says. “I miss you. I think about you all the time.” But the ghost, this woman whose life and death has meant so much to Woodcock, says nothing. I find it hard to articulate the truth of this scene, except to point back to the title of the film: Phantom Thread. How strange, that that which holds our lives and our loves together should be nothing more than a phantom—and an unspeaking phantom at that.