There is a moment in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice – a frenetic, dope-fuelled odyssey based upon Thomas Pynchon’s novel – in which Joaquin Phoenix’s drug-addled private eye Doc Sportello is handed a photograph: Doc studies the photograph for just a moment before issuing a shriek of genuine horror (pictured below). The moment feels thrillingly improvised; there is something unnerving about it, something amusing, and the moment is finally experienced as something of a rupture in Doc’s otherwise cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor. Despite his character’s chilled manner, Doc often appears to be on the verge of breaking-point, as though he might lose balance or his head at any moment, a theme that could be transcribed on to the rest of Inherent Vice; the photo that ruffles Doc’s feathers is indicative of the way in which Pynchon’s convoluted plot is presented to the audience, as a fine balancing-act between stasis and rupture.
Inherent Vice will not reward those who require a clearly discernible plot in their films, and there is little return for those who attempt to decipher the film’s enigmatic and elaborate structure; there is reward to be had, however, for those who choose to treat Anderson’s latest possible masterpiece as the kaleidoscopic trip that it so evidently is. Allow yourself to be swept up in the film’s dizzying, hypnotic high, and you will find pure, cinematic pleasure as you set yourself adrift through Anderson’s majestic sunlit noir; there you will encounter the ruptures at the heart of Inherent Vice, and uncover a sophisticated treatise on the maniacal madness that lies at the heart of the USA.
Inherent Vice is the latest in a long line of Paul Thomas Anderson films that tackle madness in one form or another. As a presentation of the United States, Inherent Vice serves to deconstruct the country’s mythical body, revealing tensions and traumas buried at the heart of it: the film addresses capitalism, corruption and cults, authority and alienation, justice, virtue, and, of course, the good old American Dream. This mythical body metaphor works to address the way in which Anderson approaches the primary subject of his small but distinguished body of work: the United States itself.
There is something distinctly iconoclastic about Anderson’s filmmaking, and the mythical body of the USA predominantly pertains to a land-as-body metaphor wherein the country is perverted by often symbolic narratives suggesting something sinister, a madness even, that lies at the physical and socioeconomic heart of the country. Consider Boogie Nights‘ ruminations on sexual politics, or the bloody tides of capitalism that course through the veins of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview; in the case of the latter example, There Will Be Blood presents an image of the United States as morally barren, as capitalistic greed transmutes into a literal madness for Daniel Day-Lewis’ deranged protagonist. The stark physical landscape serves to reinforce the image of a changing American consciousness at the turn of the twentieth century, and remains pertinent to this day.
Of course, Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker’s filmmaker and the United States’ mythical body also alludes to a body of work; that is, an American cinematic heritage represented by iconic, canonical film texts produced during the earlier parts of the twentieth century to which Anderson owes a great debt. Consider, for instance, Punch-Drunk Love – arguably Anderson’s most underrated film which houses an Oscar-worthy turn from Adam Sandler (one somewhat fears that that sentence will not be written again any time soon) – as an inheritor of Billy Wilder’s tragi-comic style à la The Apartment; or contemplate There Will Be Blood as an operatic descendant of the revisionist Western genre made popular by New Hollywood in the 1970s.
Ultimately, Anderson’s films are both iconoclastic and enduringly iconic works in which the image of the United States – a heavily codified, quintessentially cinematic sign that has been configured and reconfigured through various epochs of American filmmaking – has come to reflect something greater than itself. In Anderson’s films the image of the United States implies transformations in cultural and cinematic discourses wherein the land itself becomes a vehicle upon which darker truths lying at the heart of the American consciousness can be contemplated. For Anderson, the landscape of a disillusioned, disenfranchised United States becomes a gorgeous instrument for cultural and cinematic myth-making, a tortured space upon which madness festers and a modern filmmaking master is born.
For all his undeniable artistry, Anderson is a true master of creating complex, captivating characters; as we move past the first anniversary of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic passing, it is worth remembering just how excellent a collaborator Anderson is, uncanny in his ability to construct vile but irrepressibly human characters that leap from the always beautiful frames of his films. Philip Seymour Hoffman has made an indelible mark upon the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, serving the director for five of his seven major features. Hoffman’s roles often epitomize the innate madness that colours Anderson’s cinematic canvasses. His characters veer between the meek and the monstrous – consider the fragility of Boogie Nights‘ Scotty J. or Magnolia’s Phil, as opposed to the ferocity of Punch-Drunk Love’s Dean or the menacing ambivalence of the titular Master of Anderson’s last feature before Inherent Vice.
If Joaquin Phoenix goes on to inherit Hoffman’s role as Anderson’s muse – he has had leading roles in the director’s two most recent features – then his explosive pairing with Hoffman in Anderson’s The Master will prove a testament not only to Anderson’s skill as an actor’s director, but to both actors’ supreme quality. Madness, as it is rendered through its enigmatic central characters, is depicted as a dichotomy been the physical and the intellectual; the United States is gorgeously presented as remote, sparse, and haunting, distilling post-war anxieties in a film that ruminates on power, survival, faith, sexuality, and violence, not to mention a monstrous rupture in the nation’s collective consciousness. As the boundary that distinguishes one man from the other begins to falter, the two characters combust, most explosively in a jail cell clash; as they go head-to-head Hoffman and Phoenix produce some of the finest screen acting this century.
The Master is arguably Anderson’s most difficult work thus far, but it is also perhaps his best and, for a filmmaker whose quality only moves between ‘excellent’ and ‘masterpiece’, that is saying something. The Master is a note-perfect crystallization of Anderson’s recurring theme of madness in the USA. Besides being a startlingly powerful thesis on madness, trauma, and the consequences of a destabilizing national identity, The Master returns to another theme common to many of Anderson’s films: legacy. Not only does The Master serve as a beguiling study into the legacy of war, it recalls the fathers-and-sons motif that populates many of Magnolia’s narrative arcs. To see the master and the man – Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd and Phoenix’s Freddie Quell – in such a light does present a rather unnerving reading of the film that may be directly transferred on to contemporary national anxieties; violence (rendered through Quell) is cannibalized by a manipulative intelligentsia (portrayed in Dodd) that preys on the marginalized, an act that relinquishes the body as the primary agent of control as powerful forces set to work ensnaring the mind.
Anderson’s films might sometimes feel like densely constructed novels, impenetrable to a passive viewer and, to some extent, they are. His films demand a certain commitment that, if granted, is rewarded with powerful, transcendent filmmaking of the highest order that asks deep and destructive questions of the country he hails from.