Paul Thomas Anderson has done it again. And that not only means making a great film, but one that is like none of his others. Phantom Thread is a horror film. It may not seem that way at first but once it clicks, everything makes sense. What we’re seeing here is the unfurling of an abusive relationship.
Power relations are a complex thing. They often come about tacitly, easily leaving one or both parties unaware of how strongly they can dictate the other’s seemingly normal day to day activity. While Anderson can’t have foreseen the release coming so shortly after the ‘Me Too’ movement, it becomes an especially relevant lens to view the film. Woodcock’s story is not far from one of many powerful men: he is one cog in a machine much larger than him and yet he is the one who dictates how things go. It’s interesting for Daniel Day-Lewis to work as a cowriter for his retirement, almost feeling like a reveal of how the sausages gets made for any tour-de-force mysterious savant like himself.
Jonny Greenwood is possibly the greatest experimental composer working in film, which is particularly impressive since he spends most of time not working in film. The music, along with the costumes, serve as characters in themselves, driving the plot and altering meanings in ways the script alone never could. PTA’s newfound role as cinematographer shows he never really needed anyone for this sweeping camera movements and long takes: he’s got it all covered himself. With age he’s becoming less flashy with a keener eye for purpose. Instead of the uninterrupted two minute one-shot through a pool, we’re treated to characters trapped in door-frames or the camera peering round corners.
PTA has been on a spotty run ever since There Will Be Blood. The Master was technically exquisite but lacked his usual vivacity or sense of bombast, and Inherent Vice showed not everything he does should be 150+ minutes. So Phantom Thread serves as a return to his original form and excitement. At just 47 he’s on course to challenge some of the best filmographies out there. As ever he’s an actor’s director. Perhaps it’s not hard to get a great performance from Daniel Day Lewis, but the real brilliance comes from Lesley Manville’s Cyril, the embodiment of dour.
Is it going to win an Oscar? Probably not, but the Best Picture field is especially strong this year. More prescient questions are does it achieve what it set out to? Absolutely.