Phantom Thread and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Is this it? Are we done playing catch up with 2017? I just absolutely LOVE IT when studios hold back on releasing Oscar Caliber Films to the general public until weeks after they’ve already been reviewed, examined, and voted on! VERY helpful for the small time outlets who don’t get critic screenings or screener discs sent to us! Oh well. It’s certainly too late for films like this and I, Tonya to be considered for my best of 2017 list (which I’m SURE Neon and Focus Features absolutely CRUSHED about, but I must stay firm!), but that doesn’t keep them from potentially being good movies that you should check out! Better late than never I suppose, though it’d be nice if Hollywood would stop releasing EVERYTHING awards worthy in a two month period to only VERY selective markets; ESPECIALLY when half the time they don’t even get the awards they’re looking for! Does this movie deserve the countless accolades it has accrued in the tail end of Oscar Season, or is this the latest victim of a hype machine that severely overestimates its actual quality as a film? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) who unfortunately shares the name of a crappy Billy Bob Thornton comedy, but aside from that he’s a meticulously detail oriented dress maker who extends his obsession with perfection to his personal wife as well as his work life. His schedule is quite regimented, his appearance is consistently maintained, and his relationships to others are carefully filtered through his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) who’s basically the only person keeping him on track and able to focus his eccentricities on something that’ll keep the lights on. One day, Reynolds goes off to the countryside and finds a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) that he is immediately smitten with. He asks her on a date, they have a lovely dinner, and by the end she’s half naked while he’s dictating measurements to his sister who’s writing them all down for future reference. Whether or not Reynolds is TRULY attracted to Alma rather than the shape of her body is not entirely clear, but she goes away with him back to the big city to be his protégé of sorts and to help him model the dresses he makes. However, because neither one of them are all that great at communicating, the expectations they put on each other that neither of them are able to meet start to put a strain on the relationship and could potential be volatile enough to destroy his life, her life, and even his sister’s life as everything could come crashing down upon them if they can’t sit the hell down and decide what they really mean to one another. Will these two act like grownups and get their issues resolved before they explode in a fiery maelstrom of passive aggressive horror? Will either one of them start contemplating drastic actions that will certainly not solve their underlying issues? Wait, isn’t this the plot to like… every romantic comedy ever?
I went into this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it, and I was REALLY hoping it wouldn’t be another cliché drawing room film that tries to tick a bunch of “classy” boxes without having any real heart or humanity that gives us a reason to care. For the first act, I was sitting there in RAPT attention as I thought this was going to almost be a subversion of that and would go in a direction I don’t think we’ve seen in a film like this since The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, but sadly I was just building myself up for a movie that wouldn’t materialize as what we got is by no means BAD, but incredibly bland and rather pretentious. Despite its loving crafted sets, its flawless acting from a most accomplished cast, and a genuinely lovely score that made every scene that much more interesting, I just couldn’t get into this movie past its rather interesting initial moments. Maybe it’s me, but yet another movie about a crappy dude in a shitty relationship and a woman scorned just doesn’t do enough to keep me interested, no matter how many lovely dresses are made or how many times Daniel Day-Lewis furrows his immensely captivating brow in frustration. There is certainly SOME degree of life to this thing; especially whenever Daniel Day-Lewis gets pissed or whenever Vicky Krieps is clearly tired of his bullshit, but the overwhelming feeling I felt for nearly two thirds of this movie was boredom. Not EVERY movie has to break new ground in terms of scripting or characters, but combine that with an aesthetic that we’ve seen done in other “classy” films and a languid pace that doesn’t feel the need to keep the momentum going in this paint by numbers plot makes the experience one big case of been there, done that. There are better movies about making dresses, better movies about terrible relationships, better movies (and television shows) about people who are super smart but without any real emotional intelligence, and better films about the tension between high society traditions and customs with the humanity that makes us who we are while also inexorably flawed. Say what you will about Peter Greenaway’s aforementioned artsy and pretentious film, he certainly made something ENTIRELY original!
The first act is great. It’s beautiful, it’s introducing us to all these interesting characters, and the music is basically carrying us through each scene; rarely stopping and always sounding like we’re in some classy establishment as if this was all taking place in Rick’s Café or that bar from The Muppet Movie where Rowlf plays. That was at least enough to get my attention initially, but what REALLY got me interested was when things started to seem… off. Rather quickly, we can see that Reynolds uses women; objectifies and fetishes them with no concern for their needs or what his actions do to them. He’s so obsessed with his work that he cannot relate to anyone for long other than his own sister who seems to be just as monstrous but much better at reading social cues and interacting with the real world. Then things get weirder once he starts driving out to the country side. Then he meets a waitress, is very demanding of her, and then asks for a date. Okay… then he starts to bring up his late mother and admonishes the waitress named Alma for not carrying around a picture of hers. YUP! That’s all I need to hear! I was absolutely CERTAIN that this was going to be a serial killer movie and that the PHANTOM THREAD in question was gonna be his gimmick or something. He dresses women up in clothes, murders them, and then takes a single thread from the blood soaked outfit! And it’s not like the movie WASN’T aware of what the hell it was doing. The scene where Alma and Reynolds are chatting at his… I guess country cottage, is eerily reminiscent of Norman Bates’s chat with Marion in Psycho, and by the time he has her in the attic trying on new clothes, there’s ominous music playing that only gets more pronounced once his sister comes in and starts writing down notes while watching Alma like a hawk. Clearly they’re setting up something sinister… but then it doesn’t happen. Now it’s not like the rest of the movie doesn’t build off of Reynold’s creepy behavior, but what the movie is ACTUALLY about is just not that interesting and I couldn’t help but think what a Paul Thomas Anderson slasher film would look like; especially one with such wonderful sets, costumes, and music, to offset the horror of everything. Once it was clear that we weren’t getting THAT movie, I was indeed somewhat disappointed, but I was willing to see where this was going; it’s just that nothing really lives up to what we were getting in the beginning as the film never goes for that creepy, ominous, and downright intense vibe again.
So what are we left with once it turns out that Daniel Day-Lewis isn’t making a woman suit, something he could EASILY do given his skills? Well… he’s just kind of an asshole for the rest of the movie. Alma is somehow enchanted by this obnoxious lout who barely registers the needs of others and the pain he causes them, and we just watch them… be together. There’s a subplot with a rich woman who Reynolds doesn’t approve of, there’s a story about a dress for a princess that needs to be made, but none of it stands out or has anything worth saying. There’s no real examination of Reynolds who comes across as neuro-atypical, and Alma doesn’t have much going on herself. She wants Reynolds to reciprocate her feelings, but we knew that was a pipe dream by the half hour mark; much less at the hour mark when that confrontation comes to a head. There’s also not enough of Reynolds making the dresses for this to be a great exploration of that business at that period of time, so even though there ARE some nice dresses in here, it’s all just window dressing for the rather predictable and extraordinarily dull “romance” between Reynolds and Alma. Remember that scene in Citizen Kane where we see his relationship to Emily turn sour in the course of a single two minute montage? There’s a reason why Orson Welles cut to the chase on that, and this movie shows us exactly why!
After the overly long second act where we just watch them bicker at each other and occasionally make a dress for someone, we get into the third act which, while at least more LIVELY than the second act, isn’t that much better and certainly not as interesting as the first act. It’s a WOMAN SCORNED movie by that point, and honestly the film does not earn it. They spend ALL this time setting up Reynolds as a jerk while giving almost no characterization to Alma, and yet all of a sudden we’re supposed to believe that she is capable of doing what she ends up doing in this movie. On a whim. Because “women”, am I right!? Ugh… and it doesn’t even end on a high note. There’s a moment that’s SUPPOSED to be a big drama bomb right as we’re about to wrap up, but even that was more bewildering than it was impactful. Maybe I’m just ignorant and don’t see enough movies like this, but I just don’t get what someone is supposed to take away from this movie. It’s beautifully crafted, but it’s a story with no originality to it. All the actors do what they can, but the there’s not enough in the script to make them compelling. It’s over two hours long while ALSO feeling incredibly repetitive and without direction which is usually a sign that you need to CUT from the film; not add to it!
I don’t know about the rest of the critics out there, but I just couldn’t get into this and it feels like it’s gotten so many accolades out of obligation rather than genuine quality. Now I never like to make that assumption as it tends to be thrown at films accused of being “elitist” when they’re really just not catering to the lowest common denominator, but I just don’t think a story about a controlling misogynist (something that we’ve seen in PLENTY of other movies and shows) needs to be this dry and drawn out. It’s not without its merits as the first act is almost surreal in its blending of high society elegance with trashy horror and there are hints of it throughout the rest of the movie even if it doesn’t capitalize on it, but the slow pace, the story that goes nowhere, and the conclusion that just made me shrug my shoulders kept this from being something I would have genuinely enjoyed instead of merely tolerated for its bloated run time. Even if this DOES play at your local theater, I can’t really recommend seeing it that way. Maybe on a home release since you can distract yourself whenever the film slows down to a crawl, but this is definitely one of those times where the nominations for this could have definitely gone to films much more deserving and will actually matter going forward. Now that I think about it, this movie would have been SO much better if they threw in Wonder Woman.