And here we are. The last of the major Best Picture nominees for 2017, the one I contemplated waiting to release my Top Ten list before releasing it for the masses. Daniel Day-Lewis’ alleged final performance (until he gets a nervous itch like a heroin addict and he’s battering down Martin Scorsese’s door for ANOTHER final film). Basically, the film has a lot to live up to through a swell of hype from multiple critics. So what do I, the greatest critic the world has ever known, think of Phantom Thread? Well, I hate to disappoint Paul Thomas Anderson fans that I got my Top Ten list right the first time around…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So we find Day-Lewis playing the precise and OCD-prone Reynolds Woodcock, the premier fashion designer for royalty and British upper class during the 1950s. While his sister, Cyril (Lesly Manville), manages the day-to-day operations of their company, Reynolds is both incredibly brilliant but becomes painfully irritable when things don’t conform to his high standards, including his various lovers. His world is once again upended when he meets a new lover in a French waitress named Alma (Vicky Kriepes), who unlike his many previous girlfriends, tends to be so much more headstrong and even confronts Reynolds on an almost daily basis. While the odd relationship is both passionate and tumultuous, Cyril can’t seem to rid Reynolds of Alma…mostly because Alma seems to understand hows the pedantic designer operates in a way his exes never could.
I’m not going to go into any further detail about the plot because the film works best when you don’t know much of what is happening beforehand…partly because the script isn’t very good while everything else is firing on all cylinders. Seriously, the cinematography, score, and especially the acting are really the stars of this piece and are what I imagine is leading several critics to place this film in their best of the year lists. But I am a lover of really well-told stories and this movie really doesn’t satisfy my itch for a good story. It has qualities of slice-of-life narratives that I’m not personally a fan of (with noted exceptions), so there’s not much of a drive to follow. You’re pretty much at the mercy of whether or not you want to follow the characters of Reynolds, Alma and Cyril, which thankfully Paul Thomas Anderson made sure you gave a damn about their lives.
Part of the reason why they’re so intriguing is the stellar acting on display. Daniel Day-Lewis is unsurprisingly great but he does demonstrates why people regard him as the best damn actor in the world. Every action and movement he takes feels as precise as possible, which fits with the obsessive-compulsive personality his character is written to be, right down to how annoyed he appears when anybody interrupts his thought process. While the script doesn’t give him much to work on, Day-Lewis really feels like he crafts a much more fascinating person with the non-verbal work other actors aspire to do. And the funny thing is, I didn’t think he was the best thespian in this piece.
That distinction belongs entirely to Vicky Kriepes, who becomes so much more than a typical love interest. To be honest, she feels written to be more like the proper lead of this piece rather than Day-Lewis; and that’s mostly because the more you learn about her, the more she learns about herself. And she discovers some curiously dark tendencies in how she relates to others, particularly Reynolds Woodcock, and understands what the man desires in a lover more than anybody else. And what Woodcock desires is…unconventional, to say the least.
The pair’s romance has all the earmarks of a sadomasochistic relationship, only unlike my worst film of 2017, the film very clearly enunciates why these people need these peculiar additions to their bond. And what’s more, unlike Fifty Shades Darker, the film doesn’t even bother with showing you any poorly-shot sex scenes or demonstrating awful-written dialogue between two thespians with as much chemistry as sandpaper on titanium. What’s great about the film is that it is never immediately apparent this is where the story is going to go. Hence, the “slice of life” narrative very carefully upends your expectations, as you realize towards the end that this is where the movie was building up towards without any obvious foreshadow or delivering reveals about character motivations in an operatic fashion. In its own quiet way, the film reveals multiple interesting layers to itself, one that I’m positive film critics will be gushing over in repeat viewings.
That being said, the destination really is more fascinating than the journey. The lack of narrative drive in the first 90 minutes can really wear down those with little patience for the style of filmmaking, but for those who are at least open to more unique methods of storytelling will at least be entertained with some truly amazing cinematography and some impressive acting from the likes of Kriepes, Day-Lewis and even Lesly Manville. I haven’t discussed the latter too much as she’s not the focal point of the piece whereas her costars are, but she does deliver on some very key scenes that flesh out the characters of Reynolds and Alma. I’m unsurprised that she received a Best Supporting Actress nod for this year’s Academy Awards, but I would have liked to see Kriepes nomianted for something as well given how important she was to making Phantom Thread work as well as it does.
The film has grown on me in the week since I’ve seen the movie, and the piece definitely deserves a place in my runners up of the year…but not more. Nothing personal against the movie, I simply found ten other films that really struck a chord with me throughout their runtime, whereas my best memories of Phantom Thread come in the final twenty minutes as the film clicked into place for me. Nonetheless, you’d be hard pressed to find many other films in 2017 that had such meticulous acting and some drop dead gorgeous cinematography, even if the script takes a little too long in getting where it needs to go. I debated endlessly with myself whether the story was enough to knock the movie down a rating, but as the movie left me satisfied in the end, I’ll award this with a low…
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