New in Theaters: Phantom Thread

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is the master, pun intended, of taking an existing film genre or style and putting his own unique spin on it.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in his romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love, but he has also done it with film noir (Inherent Vice) and the epic (There Will Be Blood).  Even Boogie Nights and Magnolia are his own take on the style of Goodfellas and Short Cuts, respectively.  With his latest film, Phantom Thread, the director is tackling the costume romance.

Phantom Thread takes place in post-World War II London and focuses on a prestigious dress-maker named Reynolds Woodcock and the woman, Alma, whom he meets at a café while staying at his country home.  On their first date, he literally puts Alma up on a pedestal and begins designing dresses for her.  He then takes her back to his shop in London where she quickly falls in love with him, but begins to worry that her affection will not be returned once he resumes his daily routine.

One evening, while at a wedding for one of his biggest clients, Reynolds is obviously hurt when the bride’s drunken behavior is ruining the dress he made special for her.  Seeing his discouragement, Alma takes control and demands that they take back the dress.  This sudden drive by Alma to take control and make him feel better thrills Reynolds and later that night he takes Alma into his bedroom for the first time.  Alma believes that this will be the turning point in their relationship, but the next day Reynolds has returned to his normal routine, treating Alma as if she were just another fixture in the house.  Not one to give up, Alma begins to look for other ways that she could take control and be the one that Reynolds needs to rely on.

Phantom Thread reunites Paul Thomas Anderson with his There Will Be Blood star Daniel Day-Lewis for what the actor says will be his final film.  The three-time Oscar winner is brilliant, as always, in a performance that is a little more reserved than his boisterous Daniel Plainview in their previous collaboration.  There is no milkshake drinking in this film, only some crucial tea-drinking scenes.  Day-Lewis has gotten the most praise and awards attention for his performance, but it is Vicky Krieps as Alma who really is the star of the show here.  The actress goes toe-to-toe with her legendary co-star, which is crucial, because for the story to work, we really need to believe that Alma can play at Reynolds’ level and even sometimes play above it.

The movie goes in some unexpected directions, even at times feeling like it might poach on Fifty Shades of Grey territory, but in a much subtler and classier way, or maybe something closer to The Silence of the Lambs.  There are elements of each, but no, the movie does not go completely in either of those directions.  The mystery is part of the movie’s intrigue.  But even if you feel like the direction this movie takes is unexpected, when you look back upon the previous events of the film you realize that Anderson had been guiding us towards that conclusion the entire way.  Like with most of his films, a single viewing will not be enough to uncover the secrets, hints, and even references that the director has likely blended into another very well-constructed movie, but the skill that went into it is obvious from frame one.

Also like most of Anderson’s films, Phantom Thread has a few top-notch scenes that will likely be the topic of plenty of online analysis.  The fashion show sequence near the middle of the movie, for one, and the cooking of an omelet near the end, for another; one is a frenzied set piece, the other a silent, knowing confrontation between the two lead characters.  There is also a quick, but fun New Year’s Eve party sequence.

The technical achievements of the film are also top-notch, from the many finely constructed period costumes to the gorgeous cinematography—Anderson was his own cinematographer—to the incredible musical score by composer Jonny Greenwood.  The score starts out jovial and pastoral, only to progress to something more tense and haunting as the story progresses, even at times verging on something you might hear in a Christopher Nolan movie.

The story that Phantom Thread tells may not be for everyone, but it is told in such an entertaining, subtle, and finely-crafted way that there is no denying that it is the work of a master filmmaker.  The costume romance will never look the same.

Phantom Thread is now playing at the SIFF Cinema Egyptian in downtown Seattle, a limited-release engagement.

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