First of all, I must make it clear, I had no intention of seeing this film in the Theater. Since day 1, PT Anderson has been your muse, first and foremost, even if you only started watching his films due to your love for the great Philip Baker Hall. By the way, did you know he is still alive and kicking at 86? What a sturdy old bastard he is.
Never the less, you’ve stayed up to date with his career, while I have dabbled. I have wandered here and there, going from enjoying his work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) to tolerating it (Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) to hating it to its self-serious core (The Master). This film for me stands firmly in that middle group.
There are elements of the film that stand out. The acting trio of Day-Lewis, Manville and Krieps in particular. I am unsure we could have seen something this good from someone who did not allow space for real acting to occur. Each of the performers take a different tack on characters we may have seen before.
Day-Lewis, making his much-hyped last appearance in film, is as good as I have seen him. He is thoroughly inhabits the space as an exceptional designer Reynolds Woodcock in 1950’s London. In many ways, one could see a parallel between this character and Day-Lewis himself. Too much has been made about his method acting and how he takes the character with him to an exhausting degree. It has been reported that he picked out that name, too. This performance, much like his others, is almost too good. There are moments when we get to see the degree to his displeasure that one wishes he and Anderson were a little less in sync so it might feel a little less obviously authentic.
Krieps is that breath, to a large degree. She provides a natural release to the rest of the rigid tension provided for the star. Her Alma first wins over Woodcock, then eventually, his sister Cyril. By this time Reynolds has grown irritated by the disruption.
At this point, we get a pleasant surprise. His sister, played with cool, brilliant precision by Manville, takes a turn that most siblings who enable an oppressive environment might not. Hers is the best character in a well acted, but brutally chilly set of characters.
It is true that Philip Baker Hall brought me to P.T. Anderson. And that first trio of films are still very watchable for me. But from Punch Drunk Love onward, my enthusiasm has waned with each passing film. Were it not for the fact that I see every Oscar-nominated film, I would have given this one a pass entirely.
I do agree with you that the three lead performances are all well-defined, and that Anderson’s directorial style allows the performances to blossom on-screen at their own pace. My biggest problem with the movie is that I didn’t identify with any of the characters; I had no one to root for, and no one to care about. Ultimately, I didn’t really care what happened to any of these characters. For me the movie was more of an exercise in style than a story about real, believable people. That being said, it was worth watching, just the once.
On the positive side, there was some deliciously acerbic dialogue, with most of the choice lines given to the Woodcock siblings. I am somewhat astonished that this is an original screenplay; it has elements of originality seldom seen in contemporary film making, and for that I have to give Anderson credit. He takes chances, he doesn’t play it safe. The film community could do with a few more writers and directors who were not afraid to explore unconventional human interactions.
What are your thoughts on the screenplay?
There is a scene where Reynolds confronts his sister that he is tired of Alma and during this scene, Alma creeps in behind them. Cyril gives absolutely no indication that she’s entered the room as her brother rages on. Then as he nears the crescendo, she gives notice of her presence. In a lesser screenplay, this would have led to surprise on Reynolds’ part, and at least a bow towards feigned propriety. Instead, Reynolds doesn’t miss a beat as he shouts, perfectly in rhythm:
“I don’t give a tinker’s fuck…!”
This is an example of a director and his actor being perfectly in sync. In most ways, this script is very adventurous and it does take some welcome chances. In particular, the move to take back the dress from the socialite who doesn’t deserve it even while she sleeps off her drunkenness. Indeed, I did appreciate that while the characters lack a certain amount of likability, it was certainly easy to respect the actions of the characters as they discover that their incongruities actually might have some potential if merged together.
There are some other great lines, like the one you’d like for me to use on my wife:
“I’m admiring my own gallantry for eating it the way you prepared it.”
I may try that the next time you dine at the house with us…
Before the presence of Alma in their lives, the two siblings are slaves to the rhythm of what it takes for Reynolds to achieve the goals that the ghost of their mother sets before them. Indeed, his character seems to exist on a spectrum somewhere between genius and asshole. Alma comes into their lives through serving the voracious appetite of the “hungry boy” his mother’s passing opened up. Before you could say “no more (wire) hangers-on” she has ingratiated herself between brother and sister, as they both find her something of a fit, despite it all.
Of course this takes longer for Reynolds to recognize than her mother. In one of the strange turns of recent movie history, he discovers even after the viewer what’s going on, but at that point, even the most cynical viewer is in for a surprise.
What did you think of the twist?
I was completely shocked. Movies very rarely catch me out like this one did. I can honestly say I did not see it coming. The scene that reveals the twist was filmed and acted to perfection. Anderson takes his time, allowing the scene to play out over several minutes. There is a point at which the audience realizes, “Oh my God, he knows.” It is what he does with that knowledge that left me flabbergasted. Twist, indeed. Some might question just how believable the scenario is, but within the framework of the film, there is logic to the way things play out.
So we have a truly original screenplay and three memorable performances. Visually, the film works well. I do think it is interesting that Anderson’s films have become very static. When I think of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, I recall a lot of kinetic energy, a lot of camera movement. Both films have much talked about tracking shots that last a couple of minutes. He has become more Kubrickian in his later films, with a much more static camera. I suppose the camera style is suited to the story, but I can’t help but wonder if this is one of the reasons his later films just aren’t as engaging for me.
I suppose we should take some time to talk about the elements of the movie that don’t work. I believe we are in agreement on the film score being just awful. Not awful in itself, but completely incongruous, and often distracting. I will leave it to you to elaborate.
The score, outside of the film, isn’t too bad. The problem is, it just lays over the film like it has nothing to do with any of the scenes. It seriously knocks a leg out of the structure of the film, setting it reeling. For all of the work that Anderson put into everything else, it’s just befuddling, and really kind of comical. It’s just not funny in the way intended.
The comparison to Kubrick is apt, and likely a big part of the reason PT Anderson films no longer appeal to me. It’s almost like this film is a state of movie making with Anderson as well as Daniel Day-Lewis playing the roles of Reynolds and Cyril. The dedication to form and precision is almost to an absurd degree, and if we judge by the twist, they are completely aware and accepting of it all.
Problem for me is, it all feels like high form gimmickry to me. Yes, I understand the talent involved and the inside jokes. Truth to tell, watching PTA, or even Hal Needham directing Burt Reynolds is more entertaining to me than watching PTA directing Reynolds Woodcock.
This is fine for one viewing, but overall it leaves me cold.
I couldn’t agree more. Cold is a very appropriate word. As a lover of film, there is enough strength in Anderson’s craft to keep me coming back, but I long for the frenetic energy of his early works. And more importantly, I long for sympathetic characters, someone to root for. I am sure this movie will receive several Oscar nominations, and it may even win a couple. But in years to come I will remember it more as an intellectual exercise than an engaging movie. I think I’m going to re-watch those early P.T. Anderson films. Lord knows I don’t need to see this one again. This movie is like one of Woodcock’s dresses: thoughtfully designed, meticulously crafted, and beautiful to behold. But once the ball is over, the dress is wrapped in plastic and hung in the back of the wardrobe, not to be seen for a long time. The greatest pleasure in this experience was sharing it with you, dear friend. And so, for now, I bid you good day.
Good day, indeed.