Given his propensity for writing films revolving around driven, charismatic, and dangerously self-regarding men, one might be forgiven for thinking Paul Thomas Anderson, all-round auteur and probably the greatest filmmaker of the last 20 years, feels a kinship with these “Great Men”. Whether it’s Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) conquering the Old West or Reynolds Woodcock (also Day-Lewis) pulling the strings of high society in Phantom Thread, impressive yet monstrous men often lead Anderson’s stories. However, any deeper look at his work proves swiftly that Anderson’s interest in these stories is more than tinged with disgust, and no film of his proves his distaste for the “Great Man” theory more decisively than Inherent Vice.
At the core of Anderson’s wonderful Pynchon adaptation sits “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a stoner PI mourning the death of the ‘60s. Much like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, Doc is that rare protagonist with little to no internal conflict, instead letting himself be driven by the story with his placid approach to outlandish events. He’s not ambitious and is largely lacking in agency in the plot’s events, and it’s because of these traits, not despite them, that he’s the only true “hero” that Anderson has ever written.
To make a passive character compelling can be very difficult, but in masterfully adapting excellent source material, Anderson pulls it off seemingly effortlessly. Doc’s lack of self-serving desire and his general contentment with his own life means he has an endless supply of casual kindness that he bestows upon all he meets. Even his “antagonist”, the frozen banana-munching cop Bigfoot Bjornsen, is fundamentally a friend that Doc cares deeply for, and in the simply lovely finale, Doc calls in a favour owed to him by LA’s most powerful people to reunite a family he hardly knows. It’s an ode to the joy of being satisfied with your lot and the subtly world-changing power it brings.
Standing next to Doc, the hideous flaws of Plainview, Woodcock, and The Master’s Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) become even more glaring. Yes, these men are the masters of their domains, but they’re hateful, and Anderson never misses an opportunity to cut them and their legacies down to size. In There Will Be Blood, Plainview’s destiny becomes that of America, and it’s not pretty. It’s a descent into deep loneliness, unforgivable violence, and eventually utter insanity, the only logical conclusion for men and nations so obsessed with money and domination.
Lancaster Dodd draws less power from imposing physicality and potential murderousness than Plainview, but his dark influence takes hold of people all the same. He uses his cult to contort his own reality to the shape that best suits him – but nevertheless, he crumbles. His son despises and sees him for the huckster he truly is, and even his most fervent true believer, the PTSD-stricken Freddie Quell, eventually abandons him. The “Great Men” are doomed to loneliness, their inability to tolerate another forceful presence casting them adrift in the world until all they have is bile and memories of power.
This approach is one of the many things that makes Anderson’s latest, Phantom Thread, so fascinating. Reynolds Woodcock is more subdued than his spiritual predecessors, but no less fastidious and convinced of his own genius. If Inherent Vice was the bulk of Anderson’s essay on how contentment and compromise make the world happier than self-regard and dogma, Phantom Thread is the sharp, biting conclusion. Anderson lets someone with an equally indomitable will in Woodcock’s life, ferociously excoriating his sense of superiority and self-justification. To go into any further details about how it all plays out would be to spoil one of the year’s most delightfully surprising films, but it certainly doesn’t sing the praises of the “Lonely Genius” trope.
Anderson’s worlds are always magnificently drawn, suggesting life carrying on regardless of whether or not the cameras are rolling. The stories of Plainview and Dodd will continue, and each will clearly sink further into isolated madness, but Doc will survive and thrive. Even as the joy of the ‘60s gives way to the more frightening ‘70s, the love he’s willing to give will sustain him. Even if they’re annoyed by him, very few inhabitants of the world of Inherent Vice wish genuine harm on Doc, and those that did are all dead by the end of the film.
Inherent Vice is a film that grows in its brilliance on every rewatch, and what might initially seem a relatively slight entry into Paul Thomas Anderson’s renowned canon reveals itself as one of his most complete films. For the past decade, Anderson has been giving a similar sermon in different forms – that ambition coupled with a lack of empathy is a fatal flaw, not something to be admired. Where Inherent Vice and Doc Sportello truly break this mould, then, is in finally showing us exactly what Anderson values in a life, and the worldview it exposes is a marvellous and surprisingly comforting one.