"Phantom Thread" (2017) Review
Don't see Phantom Thread alone.
I don't say that because it's incredibly scary or anything like that, but because you're going to need someone to talk to about what you just saw. I'll be honest and say that this review only exists in the form that it does because my parents both saw Phantom Thread. This review wouldn't be what it is without bouncing ideas off of them and talking about the weird mechanics that drive this film.
The setup is actually fairly simple. A genius fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) is a notorious bachelor, unable to commit to any woman he meets because of his "artistic needs" (those needs happen to make him a huge asshole to basically everyone around him). His sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) helps manage his business, and even his love life to a certain extent. His bachelor existence is disrupted by an unusual lover he's picked up named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Early on in Phantom Thread, Alma tells Reynolds "Whatever you do, do it carefully." It sounds like she's warning him that she's fragile.
It's a different kind of warning.
Phantom Thread is one of those films that's partially built around a slow and steady reveal, so discussing the particulars of that reveal would make watching the film a moot point. So this review is going to be a lot shorter than usual.
I'll say up front that anyone tired of the "hard to work with self-proclaimed genius" trope are not going to have a great time watching Phantom Thread. The film slowly but surely undercuts the "genius" at its center, but the slow burn it takes to get there won't happen fast enough if the trope actively makes you angry. And I'll be honest, the slow burn was just barely fast enough to keep me from getting angry at this movie.
But damn, this film goes to a fascinating place by its very end. The film ultimately lands on a dark conclusion about the nature of artists, that artists are willing to destroy themselves and commit to cycles of madness if it serves their art in some way.
The biggest problem I have with Phantom Thread (beyond its slow pace) is the fact that it's a Paul Thomas Anderson film. For those of you who aren't familiar with his work, he's one of the best living American writer/directors still working in the business, responsible for writing and directing films like Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood. Again, he's a master, and undeniably so, and it's hard for me not to compare Phantom Thread against the rest of his oeuvre. In that lineup, it's not the strongest entry, not even close.
On the other hand, Paul Thomas Anderson is so incredible as an artist that Phantom Thread can't help but look and sound fantastic every step of the way. The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at, with precise cinematography shot on actual film. This movie looks like a lost film from the 1960s in the best possible way, and the original music builds atmosphere beautifully throughout.
And even though the writing is questionable in its intent and message at times, the actors here are just incredible. Daniel Day Lewis doesn't have it in him to perform badly in a movie, and this isn't the exception. His performance as Reynolds isn't nearly as iconic as Daniel Plainview, but it's quiet. In fact, all of the performances are painfully quiet and restrained, and they work wonders. The actor who seems to work best with the silence is Lesley Manville as Cyril, a character that honestly could get a whole movie to herself. She's the kind of quiet powerhouse performance that can make the slightest gesture up the tension in a scene on a moment's notice.
Vicky Frieps as Alma is definitely the strangest performance of the bunch. She's really effective in the role and her arc demands a bizarre performance by its nature. She commits to the role with everything she's got, and watching her stand up to Daniel Day Lewis is seriously impressive stuff.
Phantom Thread is a lesser work of Paul Thomas Anderson, but it's still worth seeing and processing. It's really good, an effective and weird bit of dramatic filmmaking that's meticulously put together in a way that you can't help but admire, even with its weaknesses.