“Phantom Thread” weaves a haunting romance


“”Phantom Thread” is a film that resists categorization. On one level, it’s a beautifully filmed period romance. On another, it’s a dark and unsettling analysis of a deeply screwed up relationship. Its tone is dignified and self-serious, which makes the moments it undercuts that seriousness with a well-placed joke that much more hilarious. In other words, it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

Reynolds Woodcock

Phantom Thread continues PTA’s fascination for historical dramas seen through the lens of an unusual protagonist. From Plainview’s raging oilman, to Quell’s traumatized veteran, to Doc’s hippy detective, Anderson’s uniquely character-driven approach to history has given us some really insightful works of art. 

What those movies have in common are their emotionally messy characters. However, in “Phantom Thread,” the protagonist, Reynolds Woodcock, is all poise. His dialogue is carefully chosen. He seems like he analyzes everything like a scientist. And his desire for order is downright obsessive. Daniel Day Lewis’s performance could easily be categorized as stuffy and overcontrolled. But that would be ignoring his sharp sense of humor and the light touch he brings to his role. Even the moments when he drops the “high class” act and explodes, move with a natural rhythm that speaks to an actor who understands his character inside out. If this is going to be the actor’s last performance, he will definitely end his career on a high note.


However, while Daniel Day-Lewis may have been given top billing, the real star of the show is Vicky Krieps as his lover/muse Alma. We think we know Alma the moment we see her. She’s clumsy, sweet, and with a good sense of humor. Basically, the type of warm-hearted person you would expect to melt Woodcock’s icy exterior. And while the two do eventually fall for each other, the films begin to uncover what an unsettlingly strange person Alma really is.

As these two characters interact, we realize that this isn’t the story of a cruel genius who abuses the people around him. Instead, it’s a power play between two brilliant players who try to exert control over each other. Vicky Krieps is a real standout here, somehow managing to play a character that is so emotionally open yet so mysterious. It sounds like a performance and a character that shouldn’t work, but it does.

The Craftsmanship

As a piece of purely visual art, “Phantom Thread” is dazzling. The colors are rich and vibrant. The camerawork breathlessly guides us through the House of Woodcock. The compositions are straight up immaculate (seriously, every single shot in this movie has the painstaking control you’d find in still photography). There are moments when Anderson abandons his tripod and dolly shots and goes handheld. These shots work to put you right in the moment, making you feel like you’re part of the fast-paced work environment of the house. Anderson’s films have this uncanny ability to feel so authentic that it’s as if you were transported back to that time period. “Phantom Thread” is hands down the most effective example of this transportive quality in his entire filmography.

The Story

PTA’s film is unique partly because of its wide range of influences. On one level, it recalls those stuffy Merchant & Ivory period dramas. But it also reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock movies (the director cited “Rebecca” as a main influence). At the same time, it has the energy and humor of Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.” What results is a chamber drama that moves with a unique sense of urgency and finesse. Anderson allows us to view these characters’ psychologies and hangups not through overbearing dramaturgy, but through their behavior.

What’s very interesting to note here is that, while the characters in “Phantom Thread” are no less psychologically complex than Anderson’s other characters, they do have a clarity that’s eluded his previous works. This is both a blessing and a curse. For example, I’ve found my relationship with “The Master” to evolve over time as I uncover more in it, which strengthens my connection to the movie. I feel like if I rewatch “Phantom Thread” I might get new insights into the characters, but my emotional experience would be pretty similar.

However, that shouldn’t be counted as a real detriment against the film. Because “Phantom Thread” is still straight up fantastic. It wears the clothes of a stiff, dignified historical drama, only to reveal its twisted core at the very end. Most period romances usually end on a note of swooning romance or poignant tragedy. But, in the world of Paul Thomas Anderson, things are never that neat. In “Phantom Thread,” there’s no such thing as a definitive resolution, only a desire to explore how messed up his characters really are.


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