Oddly, for a Paul Thomas Anderson film, Inherent Vice wasn’t released with a fervour of Oscar buzz or indie gossip. Unlike There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day Lewis wasn’t taking any Godzilla sized chunks out of the scenery, and it’s not taking any supposed pops at real life cult figures like The Master was. No, this was merely an adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that seeks to imitate the cool of such seventies detective films as The Long Goodbye or the effortless screenplay chic of Tarantino. For a Paul Thomas Anderson joint, that’s a fairly pedestrian pitch.
Fortunately, his latest film is anything but. Inherent Vice is the story of Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) a drug taking detective who is the epitome of film noire Private Dicks, but his paranoia comes – not just from a jaded outlook – but from years of substance abuse turning his mind into a thick pea soup. What he also borrows from these hardboiled heroes the easy charm of Philip Marlow and the irresistibility of Sam Spade, even if the ladies hate themselves for falling for his hippy graces. Whatever else he has he’s mooched off of Cheech and Chong.
Doc is not a clean man, nor is he a coherent one. His speech can be just as messy as his ash strewn apartment floor. There are times when his half intelligible mumbling needs subtitles to be understood properly, but I suppose this goes hand in hand with a plot that needs a Sherpa to guide you through it. His former “old lady” has come back to town for one night to ask for Doc’s help. She too is a film noir dream dressed up to surf. And from there on I couldn’t tell you what’s going on. Something about a gang called The Golden Fang (or it might be the name of a boat), Owen Wilson, a guy hiding out in rehab, and Martin Short tearing it up as a coke snorting, whore addict.
You see, while most films bring their audience into the world of the narcotic enthusiast through the use of surrealism and fantasy, Inherent Vice creates that feeling through structure. The film has a deliberately uneven pace that jump starts one minute then slows to a crawl the next, like a heartbeat after too much speed. Characters walk in and out of the plot, some are forgotten altogether, some you’re not even sure if they were figments of the protagonists (or your) imagination. The plot fades in and out of narrative focus meaning there are times when you feel you’ve missed something, even if you’ve been paying diligent attention. It’s the most empathetic recreation of a drug haze I’ve ever seen created for a film.
This will not be to all tastes. Whether you get what it’s going for or not, you may not appreciate Anderson deliberately making the story that much tougher to follow. But even if you don’t care for the obtuse nature of the narrative you must admit its pieces – scattershot though they may be – create an intriguing addition to transgressive cinema.
The characters are the bastard children of the Coen Brothers, Tarantino, and Wes Anderson (no relation). Their quirky traits, lyrical dialogue, and philosophical musings are thrown at you thick and fast. So numerous and so distinctly bizarre are they that the film can feel crowded, while you wish that some of the great talents at work (Maya Rudolf, Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon) had more to do; perhaps by removing the less impactful characters from the narrative all together.
The only support who gets to have a satisfying turn is Josh Brolin’s Viking cop Bigfoot. Bigfoot is police brutality on two legs. The genius of this role is how likeable he makes his asshole law enforcer and not once reminds you of the cops currently making the lives of minorities’ hell in America, even though he totally would be doing just that.
But this is Joaquin Phoenix’s show. It seems that after working with Daniel Day Lewis, Anderson will only put up with a leading man who can match him for intensity. Phoenix throws himself into the role. He not only does high like no one I’ve ever seen, but concussed too. Let’s hope he didn’t go too method for that one.
The film’s sets also seem to have been brushing up on their method. They look damaged as if they’ve been carelessly lived in, building up injuries over time. The aesthetic manages to seem stylised and minimalist all at once. The actors have a distinct lack of makeup but everything else has a highly manufactured quality to it. The hair is bold and outrageous, but can often seem unwashed and unkempt. It’s taken a lot of care to ensure that everything looks like it’s been carelessly thrown together.
Inherent Vice is a ramshackled, befuddled, and dishevelled movie. And Paul Thomas Anderson put in a lot of effort to make it that way.
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Scr: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson
Prd: Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Seller
DOP: Robert Elswit
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Run time: 148 mins
Inherent Vice is released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 8th via Warner Home Distribution