Second Film Review: ‘Phantom Thread’ is the Embodiment of Style Over Substance

Very few of my recent cinematic experiences have been as deeply unpleasant as that of watching Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Phantom Thread.”

Anderson long ago established himself as a filmmaker determined to showcase the most unlikable of characters. From the seedy porn industry of “Boogie Nights” to a private investigator’s client roll in “Inherent Vice,” he delves into the worst of humankind, and revels in it.

“Phantom Thread” is, of course, Anderson’s second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis. The last time they teamed up, Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for playing one of the most unapologetically terrible characters of the 21st century. And possibly of the twenty years before that, too.

This time, Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock. It is the 1950s and Woodcock is a designer for celebrities, royalty, and all of London society. Every wealthy London woman desires a gown from House Woodcock.

But while the designer knows how to woo and wow his clients, he has a much more difficult time with the actual human connection. His romantic relationships come and go as though through a revolving door. We know this because of one opening scene in which the latest of his ladies is dispatched over breakfast. Not by Reynolds, but by his sister, Cyril, acting on his orders.

That moment is a significant look at the character of Reynolds Woodcock. Not for how callously he can dismiss a girlfriend, but at the fact that his sister, whom he always calls “My Little So-and-So,” simply does what he expects. Their sibling relationship is built on her desire to keep him happy.

Lesley Manville plays Cyril and does her best with a character that has little depth. In rare moments, Cyril reaches out and tamps down Reynolds’ tantrums. But even those moments are more about saving him from himself than from promoting her own self-interests.

In fact, the entirety of “Phantom Thread” is about fulfilling every need and want of Reynolds Woodcock. When he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a mousy waitress in a roadside inn, he is instantly taken with her, and the whirlwind of their relationship is based on nothing. He humiliates her on their first date, and without even a word from her about it, she moves in with him.

Anderson, who also wrote the script, gives us nothing about Alma. We don’t know where she is from or whether she has a family. No notion of her life before Reynolds walked into that inn. No idea of where she would have gone if he never showed up. She is not a complete person. But, again, this film isn’t about anything but Reynolds and meeting his needs. For whatever reason, Alma fills his need. So that’s everything we get to know about her.

Reynolds is childish, rude, and prone to pouting loudly when he doesn’t get his way. Some may argue that Anderson condemns Reynolds and his behavior by pointing out how ridiculous he often is. He gets annoyed by noise over breakfast. He’s angry when anything happens that isn’t part of his carefully regimented schedule. He doesn’t like it when Alma is speaking to another man at a dinner party.

The problem, though, is that Anderson himself contradicts that condemnation by showing all of these annoying situations from the point of view of Reynolds. The noisy breakfast scenes are shown with the sound mixed to highlight the irritating scrape of a knife over toast, or a spoon scraping the granules of sugar in a teacup. A party guest points out to Reynolds that Alma is talking to another man long before he notices it himself. Alma is warned repeatedly not to surprise Reynolds and does it anyway.

“Phantom Thread” is a film that should criticize toxic masculinity. And, in some ways, it pretends to. But, really, it could not be more tone deaf. Releasing this at the end of 2017 turned out to incredibly poor timing. After months of women finally finding their voices and speaking out against the ways they’ve been mistreated for so many years, this film comes along and ignores all of that. It lauds its core relationship; one that is built on the worst possible example of co-dependence. It condemns the idea of women having an identity of their own. The only woman in the film who truly has her own agency is a wealthy widow who drinks a lot and marries a much younger man. She is openly ridiculed for this behavior, having a dress literally removed from her body while she is passed out.

“Phantom Thread” is not all bad, however. The problems of character come from the writing, much more than the performances. Day-Lewis, Krieps, and Manville are really good with what they’re given. Supporting work from other players like Gina McKee, Harriet Sansom Harris, and Lujza Richter are all good, too.

Mark Bridges designed an array of costumes that really do deserve every award. He brings 1950s British fashion to life in a glorious collection of gowns and suits. He captures the essence of the era in a way that feels authentic. At least to someone who can only imagine that time. Jonny Greenwood‘s score is well-suited to the story. It is sometimes grating and is never fully beautiful, which is why it works. Anderson also served as his own Director of Photography and performed sufficiently well in that regard, too.

Ultimately, “Phantom Thread” looks beautiful in a lot of ways. But it is empty and lifeless. It will truly be a shame if this is the final glimpse we get at the talent of Daniel Day-Lewis.

“Phantom Thread” is distributed by Focus Features and is in theaters nationwide.

Read Clayton’s positive take on the film here.

GRADE: (★★)

CLICK THE CATEGORY TO SEE THE OSCAR PREDICTIONS:

MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |

ANIMATED SHORT | DOCUMENTARY SHORT | LIVE ACTION SHORT |