Review: Phantom Thread (2017)

Paul Thomas Anderson is who I confidently consider to be the best living director. Anderson had his breakthrough with Boogie Nights in 1997, telling one of the wildest and most entertaining stories ever put on the screen. He followed that up with Magnolia, a brilliant ensemble piece telling a variety of different stories. Next he gave us Punch-Drunk Love, an adorable “romance,” There Will Be Blood, perhaps the best character study of all time, The Master, probably one of the ten best movies this decade, and Inherent Vice, a crazy crime comedy. Daniel Day-Lewis, who I confidently consider the greatest living actor, is the only man with three Lead Actor Oscars, and he’s turned out mind-blowing performances life Christy Brown in My Left Foot, Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, and of course, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, which is perhaps the single greatest performance of all time.

Day-Lewis and Anderson teamed up on There Will Be Blood, and they’re back together to give us Phantom Thread. If you can expect anything from Phantom Thread, it is prestige. These two men are some of the greatest to have ever lived at what they do, and we already had proof that they make a good team. With Phantom Thread, yes, we are given prestige, but we’re also given some of the best storytelling I have ever witnessed.

There just isn’t anyone quite like Daniel Day-Lewis

Phantom Thread tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock (go ahead and laugh at the name; it started as a joke between Anderson and Day-Lewis). Reynolds is the best dressmaker in the world in the 1950s, with various royalty and wealth traveling to his London home to be fitted. Living in the close company of his sister, Cyril, Reynolds believes himself to be romantically cursed. After meeting a French-born waitress named Alma, however, Reynolds becomes smitten with her and the two become romantically involved. As Alma moves into Reynolds home and begins working for him as a seamstress, she learns she must battle his sister and his routine for attention.

As can be expected with a Paul Thomas Anderson film, there’s some incredible acting in this movie (remember, he made Adam Sandler good in Punch-Drunk Love). The most attention goes to, and rightfully so, Daniel Day-Lewis, as he plays the primary protagonist of the film. PTA wrote an incredibly thorough character in Reynolds Woodcock. Keep in mind, however, that there isn’t an actor better at making a character thoroughbred than Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis, who is famous for staying in character throughout production, takes on a similar approach with Reynolds. Every one of Day-Lewis’ performances is extraordinary because of his skill and practice, but this is one where we get to see his work in even more precision. Since 1988, Day-Lewis has adopted some accent or voice for his characters, making Reynolds his first character in almost thirty years that Day-Lewis hasn’t had the added benefit of being able to hide behind an accent. This performance is far more subtle than most of his work, and frankly, it’s one of his best.

The speed at which your mind races during this scene is insane

There are several aspects to this film that make it one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, and so I’m going to insufficiently attempt to condense several of them into two paragraphs. In addition to Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps gives a leading performance as Alma that is fantastic. It’s not an easy task to play opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, but Krieps creates a character, makes it her own, and holds her own. Another extraordinary performance comes from the surprise Oscar nominee, Lesley Manville, who plays Cyril. Manville’s work is firm, well-developed, and frankly, she steals the scene several times.

More technically speaking, this film is maybe the most aesthetically immersive period pieces I have ever seen. Mike Bridges’ costume design obviously gets to play front and center in this film, and it’s spectacular work, encompassing the broad fashion of the era, the personal fashion of the characters, and the dispositions of the characters in every piece. Mark Tildesly serves as production designer on the film, and while his sets are precise, it is the way in which they are highlighted that is brilliant. Technically there was no director of photography on this film as PTA’s usual Robert Elswit was busy. Instead of hiring a new one, Anderson chose the make the cinematography a collaborative effort between him and his on-set team. This hindered the film from being eligible for cinematography awards, but it certainly didn’t stop it from being one of the best-shot films of the year. Finally, Jonny Greenwood composed for this film one of the most beautiful, immersive, and totally effective musical scores I have ever experienced in a movie. It’s brilliant.

This three person cast is just a treat to watch

There is a lot of skill that went into the making of this movie, but the mastermind behind the story and everything else was Paul Thomas Anderson. The story Anderson contrived is intensely focused on character and defining characteristics. It’s such a precisely meditated story that one missed stitch would unravel the entire plot and purpose. This is one of those movies where not only every scene matters, but every shot matters, every reaction matters, and every internal, unspoken decision is the foundation of everything. This story is flawlessly conceived and executed with even greater perfection. It’s difficult to understand how Anderson was able to tell this story and tell it so immaculately. Thankfully, we just get to enjoy it.

I will conclude by saying that this is perhaps the most artistically emphasized of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films. I encourage everyone to engage themselves in his work, as he is one of the premiere storytellers of our time. That said, I would suggest an introduction with films like Boogie Nights or The Master before diving into something as artistic as Phantom Thread. You can consider it a flaw that this is a film that lacks entertainment quality for the average Joe, and I would probably agree. But get into storytelling, get into filmmaking, and get into Paul Thomas Anderson’s work, and Phantom Thread makes for a unique and awesome experience.

I give Phantom Thread a 9.1/10.

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