Intelligent design

“No, I really don’t think the dress would look better covered in rhinestones.”

“No, I really don’t think the dress would look better covered in rhinestones.”

It seems the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson finally did in actor Daniel Day-Lewis. He announced his retirement from acting before Phantom Thread made it to movie screens late last year in a small release just in time for awards season.

One does get the sense that Day-Lewis tends to kick his own ass when he plays roles. A notorious method actor, he stayed in the role of Abe Lincoln for the Spielberg biopic when cameras weren’t rolling, and he researched heavily for his role as a 1950s dressmaker and fashion maverick in Phantom Thread.

That crazy research and attention to detail most assuredly contributes to Day-Lewis’s tendency to inhabit a role like no other. I maintain that the greatest single performance by any actor anywhere ever is his portrayal of Daniel Plainview for There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis’s first and best collaboration with Anderson.

Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) runs a tight ship when it comes to his dressmaking business. He works and lives alongside his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), along with the occasional muse. When his latest muse starts interrupting too much during breakfast, she’s dismissed, and Woodcock goes on the hunt.

He finds a new muse in Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress he quickly asks out to dinner, and then back to his place. Rather than pouring some wine and getting to know her better, Woodcock immediately—and literally—puts Alma up on a pedestal and starts building a dress on her. Alma goes from enchanted to mildly bewildered by Woodcock’s actions, but she sticks around and eventually moves in.

Alma is not the standard Woodcock muse in that she wants more of his time and wants him to slow down. A scene where Alma hatches a plan for a romantic dinner for two proves to be the best in the film and a turning point in the movie.

In the dinner scene’s aftermath, Alma does something that carries the film into the sort of weird, bizarre territory we’ve come to expect in an Anderson film (not quite as wacky as frogs falling from the sky in Magnolia, but still …). In fact, the final act of this movie is so strange it left me wondering if the whole thing was just a fantasy or dream playing out in one of the character’s minds. It’s not your standard, tidy romance film. It ventures over to the more twisted, haunted side with a helping of dark comedy.

Day-Lewis turns Woodcock into a complete, obsessive prick, a narcissistic celebrity who has no regard for time other than his own. Krieps, a relatively unknown German actress, doesn’t just share the screen with Day-Lewis; she often steals scenes from him. Her Alma holds a lot of surprises, not all of them the happy kind. Manville is masterful as the controlling sister who knows her brother’s routine.

The movie works on many fronts. It’s an acting showcase for Day-Lewis and Krieps, another fine example of technical achievement for Anderson—who did his own camerawork—as well as another great script from the director. You could view it one time as a statement on relationship codependency, then watch it again as an observance of celebrity selfishness. There’s plenty of meat on the bone. There are a few slow stretches, but the movie mostly moves at a good pace, accompanied by another excellent score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. This is the fourth film Greenwood has scored for Anderson after There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice.

If this is Day-Lewis’s last film, I’m satisfied with what he’s done with his career. Also, I want the man to live a long, happy and healthy life. He takes the craft a bit too seriously, so him calling it quits now lowers the risk of him traveling to Mars to play an alien or sucking on meth pipes to play a junkie.

As for Anderson, while Phantom Thread doesn’t achieve the majestic heights of There Will Be Blood or Magnolia, it’s another sturdy installment in a career that has had no missteps.