Sometimes an acting career comes along which will live forever. Daniel Day-Lewis demonstrated a golden touch and more than a heaping helping of talent in his almost 40 year career. So, people were naturally surprised when the celebrated actor announced his plans to retire after completing his latest film, Phantom Thread. Would this film be a Gangs of New York high point? Or would it cause a Lincoln like, “meh”.
Phantom Thread follows tempermental fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) during his budding relationship with serving girl turned fashion muse Alma (Vicky Krieps). Art house golden boy Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed the film.
Much has been reported regarding Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Woodcock. Discussions only grew with news this would be the legendary actor’s final role. Watching the film, Woodcock’s likability is a struggle. As the character develops, it becomes clear just how absolutely horrendous and ridiculously unlikable he actually is. However, Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible in the role. He absolutely shines with his usual brand of perfection. How do you judge an actor’s performance when you hate the character? That’s a tough one.
Watching a film which not only spotlights Woodcock but often assumes his perspective felt incredibly challenging. As mentioned earlier, the designer is a horrible, horrible person. In fact, it is this unlikability which prevents audience investment in the narrative.
A primary problem with Phantom Thread is Woodcock’s strange, problematic view of women. This, in turn, is reflected in the film’s view of women. In Phantom Thread, women are little more than commodities. They exist simply as vessels to display Woodcock’s intricately designed creations. In fact, the movie feels like an on-going parade of nameless women ascending Woodcock’s majestic, sweeping staircase for a dress-fitting.
This theme of women existing solely as bodies to display Woodcock’s dresses is clearly seen in the second act (it’s tough to tell… the narrative really drags). A colorful, but disturbed woman named Barbara (Harriet Sansom Harris) arrives for a fitting in the days leading up to her wedding. She excitedly commissions Woodcock to design her a dress. However, as the sequence continues, it becomes clear that Barbara is openly struggling with alcoholism. As Reynolds and Alma watch, Barbara drinks herself into unconsciousness over dinner. They quickly decide one thing. This isn’t the right way to spotlight Woodcock’s dresses. This woman doesn’t deserve the House of Woodcock. Settling on this, they march into her hotel room and proceed to peel the dress off the body of the unconscious woman. She is given no voice and little character. She simply exists to wear the dresses.
Phantom Thread is at heart a muse story. Woodcock sees Alma while she struggles through her day job as a server. She appears charmingly befuddled and thoroughly average. The camera zooms in and watches intently as she trips. Alma is a klutz! She’s the perfect Eliza Doolittle for Reynolds’ Dr. Higgins.
Suddenly, Woodcock finds himself captivated by the young woman. All Reynolds does is throw a flirtatious smile in her direction, and suddenly she’s agreeing to go out with him and eventually letting him measure her for a dress. As the scene develops, we see his strange character quirks and his need for control over women become increasingly evident. As he slowly takes her measurements, he looks her over: “You have small breasts. My job is to give you some… if I want to”. Later, Woodcock’s assistant Cyril (the impressive Lesley Manville) sits forward, “You have the perfect shape. He likes a little belly”. To make matters worse, Alma is not the first woman Reynolds has fallen for. In fact, we learn early in the film that Reynolds grows tired of his muses, then quickly moves to the next one.
When these creepy, controlling moments aren’t filling the screen, Woodcock is talking incessantly about his close relationship (obsession?) with his deceased mother. It grows increasingly unsettling as the film progresses, culminating with Reynolds hallucinating her wedding dress wearing spirit hovering nearby as he lays sick in bed. At one point, Anderson makes an (intentional?) homage to Psycho as the camera zooms in tightly to Woodcock’s eye as he looks through a keyhole. Is he comparing Reynolds to Norman? It’s difficult to tell, but believable. However, in examining this element of the story, it holds little narrative importance. Rather, it feels like simplistic piece of Freudian character development.
As the film continues, Phantom Thread hits a the wall due to its horrendously unlikable characters. In fact, just when one seems to be stepping out from the pack and establishing them as the emotional center of the story, the narrative shifts. As the film approaches its third act, this contributes to a feeling of “oh god it’s still going” as the movie appears to be building towards a climax which never really comes.
Much like 2017’s mother!, Phantom Thread finally reaches a fascinating crescendo (no spoilers!) in the last ten minutes of the film. However, the movie’s first two hours suffer from drastically slow pacing and feel highly self-indulgent. This reviewer wants those two hours back. What can only be described as a “What the f” ending is not enough to remedy two hours of unlikable characters flitting around a borderline unwatchable, unhealthy relationship. By this point, very little can save the movie.
To sum up… Phantom Thread attempts to turn two extremely unlikable characters flitting around an unhealthy relationship into a weak Hitchcockian thriller. While the film is a beautiful and technically polished movie, there is nothing below the surface. Does it look great? Yes. Is Daniel Day-Lewis great? Certainly. However, this doesn’t forgive the extremely slow and bloated pace. While the last ten minutes are entertaining, it is a heck of a long trek to get there. Unless you’re a fan of Anderson or Day-Lewis’ work, you can give this one a skip.
Phantom Thread opens in limited release today.