I stumbled out of the haze that is Paul Thomas Anderson's “Inherent Vice” this afternoon and I didn't know which way was up. This is immersion of the highest order, a seductive ride that pulls you in if you're willing to go with it and not try to put the pieces together (I'm convinced the narrative makes sense, but I admit I failed to make sense of it, and I couldn't care less). And though it could in all likelihood hit a brick wall with the Academy (as has been the word on it for months, dating back to pre-NYFF), there are a few elements that I absolutely demand receive attention. If I may…
We've already talked to cinematographer Robert Elswit about capturing a unique shade of Los Angeles with both this film (not to mention his previous work with PTA) and Dan Gilroy's “Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal. “It was an absolute party town with a mix of hedonistic hippies and surfers and airline people,” he said in an October interview of the vibe they were going for. They achieve it, but there's more. With all the attention paid to Christopher Nolan's “Interstellar” in the realm of celluloid, Elswit – an Oscar winner for “There Will Be Blood” – deserves to elbow his way into the chatter with a kaleidoscope of colorful, vibrant imagery. It's an electric blend that may well make for his most intriguing Anderson collaboration to date.
Production designer David Crank and set decorator Amy Wells have truly outdone themselves with the sets and dressed locations of this movie. “Inherent Vice” lives and dies on the world conjured up on that screen, and while Elswit captures it gorgeously, there would be nothing worth capturing without the lava lamp, door bead aesthetic they've painstakingly delivered. And throw Anderson's long-time costumer Mark Bridges (Oscar winner for “The Artist”) in there as well. His threads make a bold statement about character every step of the way, and for a film that leaves you in the narrative dust from the opening scene, that visual storytelling becomes a crucial part of the experience.
Joaquin Phoenix is fantastic. Josh Brolin taps into a fascinating character. There are plenty of walk-ons that make this an exceptional ensemble. But Katherine Waterston is the story of the film in many ways. She's not even used too much, which probably just adds to the allure and enigma that makes her impact so significant. It's funny that, were she to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress (she absolutely deserves it, particularly in a thin year), her best work couldn't serve as the Oscar clip because it's basically a three- or four-minute take with her naked as the day she was born. But in that seductive moment, she takes the iconography of femme fatale to a whole new level. Hypnotic and maybe even a little bit dangerous, she grounds the film while demanding your undivided attention.
Anderson has worked with Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood three times now and each batch of original music has been crucial to the experience of the film, whether it be “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” or, indeed, “Inherent Vice.” In the latest picture, Greenwood's signature eerie stylings take on a whole new context against something much different than his previous PTA collaborations. But a movie like this also makes you long for a level of recognition from the Academy for music supervision or something because the way Anderson uses tracks like Can's “Vitamin C” or Neil Young's “Harvest” is, again, such a part of the experience.
Have we called it for the most exciting American directorial talent working today yet? If we haven't it's probably time to go ahead and do that. Every move Anderson makes is impressive, whether or not you were taken with this last set or long for the more heavily Altman-inspired stuff of the late-1990s. He owns his voice in a way few artists manage and he's seemed to have that drive, focus and raw talent from the outset. Someone asked me today where I would rank “Inherent Vice” in his filmography to date, and my honest-to-God answer is I have no idea. I like each one for different reasons, and that, too, is what's so dazzling about the guy. He is establishing a bulletproof portfolio and his fingerprints are all over it, but he never repeats himself. It's staggering to behold, really. And I can't shake the feeling that we haven't truly seen his best yet. That's exhilarating.
“Inherent Vice” opens in limited release Dec. 12. Feel free to not watch it sober.