OnScreen Review: "Phantom Thread"

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Phantom Thread, captured headlines long before it was even released when news came out that actor Daniel Day-Lewis was retiring after completing it. Day-Lewis is widely considered the greatest actor of recent history, becoming the first to win three Best Actor Oscars over the course of his career. Also, given that There Will Be Blood was their last collaboration, cinephiles everywhere were eagerly anticipating Phantom Thread. Those expecting another There Will Be Blood or The Master will be in for several shocks to the system, as Phantom Thread subverts a lot of expectations over its slightly-over two-hour runtime.

While people, myself included, eagerly awaited this pairing again, the revelation that the film would be about a fashion designer set in the 1950s gave more than a little pause. And the initial trailers made the film look lackluster and it seemed like a questionable note for the greatest living actor to make his exit. But digging into the film, there are a few threads that Daniel Day-Lewis’ character here, Reynolds Woodcock, shares with his most famous character, Daniel Plainview, mainly obsession and control.

As the head of the House of Woodcock, a fashion house that he runs with the day-to-day support of his sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville), Reynolds designs elegant dresses for members of high society. He has a staff of women who sew his designs, but he is a very hands-on creator, constantly sketching, and he throws himself completely into his work to the point of exhaustion. After the completion of one of his dresses for one of his long-time customers, which also coincides with the dismissal of his latest muse, he retires to the countryside for a brief respite.

It is there, while out for breakfast, that he stumbles upon a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps). Noticeably younger than him, she immediately catches his eye, and he catches hers too, and before his breakfast is over they have made plans for a date. That date culminates in Reynolds taking her home and before long, things progress to where they naturally do on most first dates, with Reynolds asking if he can make a dress for her (naturally). It’s a loaded scene, slightly humorous and slightly off; at one point, Cyril walks in and just starts taking dictation of Alma’s measurements as if finding him in the attic, taking a strange woman’s measurements is a regular occurrence. The scene mostly unfolds wordlessly between Reynolds and Alma, broken briefly by commands from Reynolds that she stand in the proper way; this is also a hint of the amount of control that Reynolds demands in his life.

From there, Alma is immersed into his world; modeling his dresses for private showings, working on the production of dresses and even residing in the House of Woodcock, the residence that doubles as the shop in London. She essentially gives up her life and hands it over completely to him as his muse. However, Alma is not content to merely be someone’s object. The film is not a character study of Reynolds Woodcock, but an examination of relationships, with their ups and down and all their nuance, uniqueness, and peculiarities.

The relationship between Reynolds and Alma is quite peculiar. Reynolds is by his own admission, a confirmed bachelor who will never marry, yet he essentially demands that Alma give herself over to him completely. Much of the film is a subtle power struggle between Reynolds and Alma over who has the power in their relationship, with Alma eventually going to extreme lengths to assert herself as an equal in the relationship. The most pleasant surprise of the film is the Krieps is equal to the task of performing with Day-Lewis, as her Alma is indeed strong-willed.

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I was surprised by how oddly humorous the film is. Reynolds is a man who is very particular about order and he abhors distractions. This produces several great biting barbs that Daniel Day-Lewis gets to throw out, a scene where Reynolds and Alma conspire to go retrieve a dress from an undeserving patron, a dinner date that deteriorates into Reynolds absurdly accusing Alma of being a special agent sent to ruin his evening.

One particularly amusing moment occurs is Alma wants to go out dancing for New Year’s, and Reynolds flat out refuses. She decides to go anyway, walking down the stairs and out the door. In a perfectly framed shot, Reynolds peeks his head out from the other room and from behind a newspaper, not once but twice.

The best scene of the film, however, centers around a breakfast between Reynolds, Alma, and Cyril, with everything Alma does at the table being a disruption to Reynolds and his morning routine. Anderson amplifies every sound she makes, as the knife scrapes across her toast as she spreads her butter and she pours her tea. It’s “entirely too much movement at breakfast.”

All of that said, the film does feel a bit impenetrable at times, I felt like I was being kept at arm’s length which prevented me from fully embracing the film despite being impeccably performed, directed, scored (Jonny Greenwood’s score is a worthy Oscar nominee), and designed (probably a shoe-in to win costume design). I think this distance is because of Reynolds Woodcock, a confirmed bachelor who is set in his ways, obstinate about it, and resistant to change. I imagine it can be a tricky thing to adjust to accommodating someone else’s presence in your life when you’ve done things your way your entire adult life and not had to consider the feelings and wants of another person. I think it is a little reductive to say that it is another critique of toxic masculinity, but I think there is something about Reynolds and the arc of his character that compares in some interesting ways to Sam Rockwell’s Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Michael Shannon’s Strickland in The Shape of Water.

I left the theater feeling perplexed by the odd experience of Phantom Thread. My expectations were for something other than what I got. After sitting with it a few weeks, and not having the time to write about it immediately after seeing it, the things that kept me from loving it initially have faded while the eccentricities and odd little moment of humor have heightened a bit, leaving me to wonder what an eventual second viewing might hold in a few years. Perhaps my tastes will be more in tune with it’s high fashion by that point, and it’ll be something I can enjoy rather than just appreciate.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars