Inherent Vice (2014) Review
Last night I attended the World Premiere of this film at the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival. Because the use of actual film in filmmaking has all but died out recently, it was with a gust of pride that the director himself, Paul Thomas Anderson—after introducing his entire cast live on stage—proclaimed that his new work was shot on 35mm film. Cheers exploded. “It’s dirty,” he added, “so if it breaks…uh, we’re in it together.”
He was not kidding: It’s dirty. In fact, the opening scenes feel like they’re straight out of a low-budget movie that was actually shot in the 70s. Between the scratchy noise on the film stock, the un-precious camerawork, and the jumpy editing, there’s a disorienting sense that, hey, this can’t be from the director of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Eventually the effect wears off, though, and we can see that something very special is unfolding from one of our greatest living filmmakers.
How do you adapt a Pynchon novel? It’s intimidating, and in fact this is the first film ever to do so. If you’ve never read Pynchon, he can be exhilarating; wonderfully visual, but always between long stretches of heady narration, conspiracy theories wrapped up with inanities, repeated phrases mistaken for secret plots (or vice versa), frenzied paranoia and satire all planted within an absorbing, deceptive maze. Anderson has decided that Pynchon's prose is particularly indispensible, and he geniusly employs Joanna Newsom’s seductive, expressive voice to lead us through the narrative—still, he never holds our hand. Just where the voice is coming from is up for debate, and it’s a living, reactive aspect of the film.
Newsom is just the beginning of a long all-star cast that makes this movie a blast to watch. Ensembles are an Anderson special, and here he uses each actor’s strengths in unexpectedly appropriate ways. Joaquin Phoenix mumbles through most of his dialogue and cakes it in long, stoner drones of searching for the next thought. Still, he has a surprising charisma, and his sense of humor keeps us glued to our seats. Josh Brolin is also hilarious, and then in an instant he’s terrifyingly intense. Katharine Waterston is tragic and hypnotizing. Martin Short is nonchalantly wicked. There are so many others: Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Jenna Malone…each has a distinct part, and each plays it with pitch-perfect authenticity for the period.
Another all-star scores the film: Jonny Greenwood, a long-time collaborator with the director, a classical composer, and a Radiohead member. Along with his usual beautiful orchestration—which is paranoiac and entrancing here—he transports us with an expertly curated list of what some might have then called “stoner music,” but which is incredible stuff to listen to nonetheless. This includes Can and Neil Young, of course, but there are other, more obscure tracks that I couldn’t place. The important thing was that they aided in the overall hazy-yet-profound effect Anderson was trying to pull off with his daring camerawork and pacing.
Daring camerawork is another Anderson staple, and anyone who knows his films can instantly recognize his long, complicated tracking shots. He swings his camera or steers it methodically to capture the world crumbling or dancing around it. But in Inherent Vice he shows a new level of maturation, a new level of patience. Early on you realize that he’s repeatedly doing really long single-take dialogue scenes between two actors, always starting out from far away, always ending up at the most intense moment right up in their faces. This is not only bold in requiring the perfect take from the actors, but technically bold in that it takes the perfect pull of focus and redirection of the camera, all at a snail’s pace. It must have been excruciating, and the result is mind-blowing. It’s also story-driven, emulating both marijuana’s effect of causing the smoker to focus on one thing intensely for a long period, and the same trait characteristic of conspiracy theorists on the hunt.
Overall, Vice is a sprawling epic with a peculiarly dual effect of intimacy and distance. You fall in love with the characters, the world, the music, the lightness, the heaviness, the absolute grooviness of it all…but still, you’re left wondering, how much of this was a big plot being covered up, and how much did I only want that to be true? And once you realize that, either way, you were incredibly entertained, you have something essentially Pynchon and essentially Anderson. And that’s psychedelic, man.