P.T. Anderson Steps Back From the Void with ‘Phantom Thread’

An exacting performance from Daniel Day-Lewis in this unconventional love story helps the director get back on track.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Courtesy of Focus Features

The main character in Phantom Thread is a 1950s fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock, a meticulous craftsman and a godlike giant of his industry. Early in the film he prepares for the day’s work, and you know he’s enacting the same rituals he does every morning: the careful brushing of hair, the measured buttering of toast. It’s a terrific introduction to a character, but I suspect writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson is also paying tribute to his leading man. The actor we’re watching is Daniel Day-Lewis, the three-time Oscar winner who previously worked with Anderson on There Will Be Blood. Godlike in his own profession, Day-Lewis is famous for his pickiness and obsessive research. Woodcock’s fussiness must be partly a portrayal of this remarkable and very controlled actor.

If Phantom Thread is an excellent portrait of an artist, it is not a predictable or conventional one. The outline sounds easy enough to figure out: uptight Woodcock, a serial monogamist whose devotion to work precludes the idea of settling down with any one woman, is finally landed by an unvarnished waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). The movies are full of stories about difficult men who just need a little home cookin’ and plain talk to melt their hearts and domesticate them, so it doesn’t surprise us when Woodcock falls for Alma. But what follows is not remotely conventional. There’s a sinister undercurrent that has led some critics to notice a similarity to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, another story of a young woman drawn into a rigidly-ordered household. True, but Phantom Thread moves well beyond that reference, into much more mysterious territory.

Given Anderson’s recent films, “mysterious territory” might not sound like a recommendation. The baffling final hour of The Master and the generally muddled Inherent Vice suggested that Anderson’s glittering talent was in danger of swallowing its own tail. But Phantom Thread, though sometimes a puzzle, blooms with possibilities the longer it goes on. Halfway through, it steers in the direction of something really, really dark, but comes to a wonderfully perverse conclusion that might qualify as the year’s strangest happy ending—not by denying the stranger impulses of humankind, but by suggesting that people sometimes fill each other’s empty places in curious, oddly useful ways.

That’s as specific as I can get without spoilers—try to avoid them if you can. I knew nothing about this movie when I saw it, and I found its 130 minutes spellbinding and mind-bending (aided in no small measure by Jonny Greenwood’s lush music). Phantom Thread has commanding scenes of drama, but it’s also laced with humor. The two leads are adept at supplying both, and so is Lesley Manville, as Woodcock’s sister, a hawk-eyed manager of her brother’s business and life. Luxembourgian actress Krieps is terrific, all the more so because most of us won’t have seen her in film before—it’s possible to read Alma as a breath of fresh air but also wonder whether there isn’t something a bit off about her. Those three are just about the whole show: the film has very little period detail or extraneous material. Everything is sewn together without waste.

Day-Lewis is elegant and vaguely terrifying; a master of voices, he gives Woodcock a carefully-cultivated speaking tone that’s as neat and tucked-in as a trouser pleat. If, as he has threatened, this is the actor’s final film, he picked a glorious way to bow out. Never exactly a natural presence in front of a camera, Day-Lewis is one of those actors who rely on technique and hard work to achieve his aims. He’s tightly wound and so is Woodcock, a parallel that leads to one of the funniest moments Day-Lewis has had on screen: A wealthy patron wears one of his dresses to her wedding and drunkenly makes a spectacle of herself, leading Woodcock to demand the return of his gown, on the spot. When a wedding attendant asserts that the dress can’t be handed over because the bride is in a back room asleep, Woodcock recoils: “In the dress?” The idea that one of his handmade creations is being crushed and creased by comatose human flesh is beyond revolting, and Day-Lewis’s horror is palpable. This isn’t sloppiness. It’s a crime against art.

Opens Fri. Jan. 11 at the Egyptian theater, rated R

More in Film

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly take the stage as Laurel and Hardy. 
Photo by Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics
‘Stan & Ollie’ and the Art of Playing Comedic Geniuses

Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly carry the story of legendary duo Laurel and Hardy.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig simmer as musicians in love in <em>Cold</em> <em>War</em>. Photo by Lukasz Bak
The Warm Musical Romance of ‘Cold War’

The gorgeous Polish tale of love behind the Iron Curtain would be a layup for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in a non-‘Roma’ year.

KiKi Layne (Tish) and Stephan James (Fonny) star in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’ Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures
Meandering Along ‘Beale Street’

Barry Jenkins follows up ‘Moonlight’ with the textured racial mood piece, ‘If Beale Street Could Talk.’

Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson square off in ‘Aquaman.’ Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
‘Aquaman’ Can’t Figure Out Which Wave to Surf

The latest DC Comic movie struggles to find a balance between keeping a straight face and having fun.

Emily Blunt takes on the role of the magical nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. 
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Studios
‘Mary Poppins Returns’ Boasts Nostalgic Musical Charm

The first soundtrack album I ever knew deeply was Mary Poppins, and… Continue reading

Spider-Folks from various dimensions come together in ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ Image courtesy Columbia Pictures/Sony
‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Gets Caught in Its Own Web

The animated comic book gets stuck up on its multiverse fan service.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone battle for the queen’s attention in <em>The Favourite</em>. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox
Black Comedy with a Regal Veneer

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz bring catty rivalry to the queen’s court in ‘The Favourite.’

Yalitza Aparicio (left) makes her feature debut as Cleo, the central character in <em>Roma</em>. Photo by Carlos Somonte
‘Roma’ Makes an Epic Film Out of an Intimate Story

Alfonso Cuarón’s memories and vision guide the Spanish-language Oscar front-runner about a young housekeeper in 1970s Mexico.

Taron Egerton (Robin) and Jamie Foxx (John) take another crack at the classic in Robin Hood. Photo by Larry Horricks
The Arrows Miss Their Mark in ‘Robin Hood’

The legend’s latest rendition can’t overcome its modern smirky tone and bland lead actor.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen form the odd couple that carries Green Book. 
Courtesy Universal Pictures
Stellar Acting Makes ‘Green Book’ A Smooth Ride

Despite its cornball touches, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen shine as a 1960s jazz pianist and his hired muscle.

Image by Drew Struzan/Disney
Holiday Movie Streaming Picks

Get in the festive spirit at home with these beloved seasonal films.

Viola Davis and Cynthia Erivo star in ‘Widows.’ Photo by Merrick Morton
Crime Doesn’t Pay Off in ‘Widows’

Steve McQueen’s feminist heist thriller stretches itself far too thin.