Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest explores his usual preoccupations – unconventional families, toxic father figures, cloistered creators – and has received the usual nominations for awards it won’t win. But it’s a much chillier proposition than the likes of Boogie Nights, Magnolia or There Will Be Blood.
The story centres on 1950s tailor Reynolds Woodcock (another great PTA name), played by Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s a perfectionist in his work, the toast of London, but in private he’s prissy, petty and cruel. After unceremoniously dumping his previous muse/model, he takes waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps) under his wing, demanding complete surrender in return for proximity to his genius. But Alma is a steelier character than she first appears.
Like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, Woodcock is vampiric, feeding off the weak to further his grand plans. Unlike Plainview, Woodcock dips his finger in Alma’s custard instead of drinking her milkshake. But dairy product theft is still a major part of his MO.
Critics have called this wry, wintry drama everything from a horror film to a romantic comedy. Both are misleading. Instead it feels like an adaptation of an austere 1900s book that’s been lost to the ages.
Everything about the production is immaculate: the clothing, the camerawork and Jonny Greenwood’s score, alternatively opulent and haunted. The performances are also excellent, particularly the hard-to-read Krieps and Lesley Manville as Reynolds’ hawk-eyed sister/enabler. As the mincing mansplainer-in-chief, Day-Lewis is predictably committed in his Last Ever Role™, an angry vein in his forehead working overtime.
But you do miss the passion and elegant mess of earlier PTA works – even Inherent Vice had some dizzying moments. The closest we get here are the surging scenes of Woodcock speeding through the countryside in his little car and a few bursts of operatic swearing.
The resulting film has, in Woodcock’s words, an “air of quiet death” about it: like a serene snow globe with nobody to shake it.