This could be one of the easiest or one of the most difficult reviews I’ve yet written. Inherent Vice is the kind of film which cares less about making sense than you might think, a film which plunges into a world where the 60s are curdling into the 70s, where free love isn’t so free, where the dope so casually consumed by our protagonists is, literally and symbolically, tainted, and where peace, love, and understanding slowly crumble in the face of greed and conspiracy.
It’s a noir where so much of the central mystery remains unresolved at the end that you’re not sure whether the answers aren’t in plain sight, hidden behind the mumbles of our so-often-stoned hero, or whether the mystery is mostly the result of his “hippie paranoia”, so avidly mocked by his opposite number in the LAPD. It’s a mess and it knows it. A single viewing is probably totally insufficient to grasp it–which presumes it could ever be grasped.
But–you’ve no doubt noticed the “****?” above–this is a P.T. Anderson film. One of our best working filmmakers, making the first-ever adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel (where it once seemed that Pynchon would never allow it), with a top-notch cast and crew. A major event indeed. And as confused as I was, particularly at the end, I laughed so much, and was so pleased with the lovely cinematography, with Anderson’s craftsmanship as director and adapter, and with the performances, that I doubted not but that this was some kind of a great film.
These are not my final thoughts on the film. Hopefully before too long I will see it again and will append my additional thoughts to the end of this review. But you can only see a film for the first time once, and a film like this…doubly so.
Spoilers. I think.
The place: Gordita Beach, just outside of L.A. The time: 1970. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a P.I., who is visited one night by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him about a plot to put her boyfriend, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), in a mental asylum. The plot has supposedly been hatched by Mickey’s wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), whose “spiritual guru” is likely her own lover and co-conspirator. Later, Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth Williams) approaches Doc and asks him to find a Glen Charlock, an associate of his who now works for Wolfmann.
Visiting one of Wolfmann’s developments, Doc is knocked out by an unseen assailant and wakes up next to Charlock’s dead body, surrounded by LAPD forces led by Det. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who has a history with Doc. He cannot pin Charlock’s murder on Doc, and lets him go, but not before informing him that Wolfmann has vanished. He later informs Doc that Shasta has also disappeared. He is then contacted by Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone), whose husband, Coy, is believed dead. She asks Doc to look into it.
Doc later gets a note from Jade (Hong Chau), one of Wolfmann’s employees, telling him to meet her at her place of employment and to “beware of the Golden Fang!!!” Meeting Jade, Doc encounters Coy (Owen Wilson), who says that he and Hope, both heroin addicts, had to separate for the good of their daughter. He asks Doc to determine their own safety. Doc’s attorney, Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), informs him that the “Golden Fang” is actually a ship, a schooner with a long and checkered past.
And then Doc finds a note from Shasta which references a past experience of theirs, which leads him to return to the scene, which is the headquarters of Golden Fang Enterprises, where he learns from cocaine aficionado and dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) that Golden Fang is simply a consortium of dentists. Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), a former runaway from a wealthy family whom Doc previously returned home, turns out to be an acquaintance of Blatnoyd’s, and after a joyride which nearly ends with them all in jail, Blatnoyd turns up dead on a trampoline–albeit with what appear to be bite marks in his throat.
And then Shasta reappears, and things just get more complex from there. And there’s a bunch of characters I haven’t even mentioned yet, because…this is a mess and it knows it.
But even if I tried to lay out the whole story, it would be a waste of the film, because so much of the fun of this film is in seeing the threads of the story criss-cross and overlap and pile upon one another. For me, there was a great deal of amusement in just seeing how many different people Doc ended up working for–if he charged them all a decent fee, he’d make a killing off this scenario alone. Of course, at film’s end, it’s not terribly clear what Doc has to show for is trouble, of Doc even knows himself.
A famous anecdote has the screenwriters of the film The Big Sleep contacting Raymond Chandler, who wrote the titular novel, asking him “whodunnit”, and Chandler replying that he himself had totally forgotten. Inherent Vice goes even further; not only is not too clear whodunnit, but what was even done is something of a mystery. In the end, though, it might not really matter. What matters is character and millieu. And Inherent Vice has both in spades.
It’s been an inconsistent presence in the awards race thus far (though we’ll see what the BAFTAs have to say in an hour or so), but it would be a real shame if production designer David Crank wasn’t nominated. Doc’s ramshackle home, the kitschy offices at Golden Fang enterprises, the home where the Last Supper is evoked by a bunch of stoned hippies chowing down on pizza, the Wolfmann-sanctioned brothel with its bead curtains and shag walls…Crank brings a bygone era to life (on what was not a lavish budget), and it’s a subtle but constant delight to the eyes. Or take the gangster’s office, lined with baseball bats which have doubtless cracked hundreds of deadbeat bones, or the mental institution with “STRAIGHT IS HIP” emblazoned across its edifice…
Then, of course, there’s Robert Elswit’s cinematography, which combines the shadows and fog of noir with the colors of SoCal and the hues of the era. There’s the great moment with Doc awaking from the blow to his head, with police spread across the screen and the mountains behind them. There’s the aforementioned Last Supper homage. There are the moments of purely visual humor which combine Anderson’s superior staging and Elswit’s superior eye. And there’s the final scene, whose place and nature are ambiguous, but which evokes the feeling of life ambling on, for better or worse, whether we understand it or not.
And Mark Bridges’ costumes, from Doc’s slack garb to Bigfoot’s straight-laced suits to Blatnoyd’s purple one, to the hippie wear of Sortilége (Joanna Newsom, who narrates the film and is also, it would seem, a friend of Doc’s), and so on and so forth…the film as a whole is truly pleasing to the eye.
And to the ear as well, thanks to a soundtrack rich with period classics on top of a Jonny Greenwood score. I haven’t listened to Greenwood’s score by itself, and I’ll admit it wasn’t quite as good as his work on There Will Be Blood or The Master (which he should’ve had an Oscar for), but there were some pleasing cues, especially near the end, as something like a touching moment seems to be taking place. I do have an issue with the sound mixing, though; there’s a lot of mumbling going on here (and Phoenix isn’t the only offender; Waterston is also tricky to make out at times), and I felt like I was missing out on some important lines. I guess this makes up for my not complaining about that issue with Interstellar.
Anderson’s films have generally boasted acting of the highest order, and if the shaggy-detective story of Inherent Vice doesn’t provide the opportunities that something like The Master did, it’s hard to complain when the people on screen are so entertaining. Leading the charge is Phoenix, who’s easily one of the best actors now working (and deserved an Oscar for The Master, hands down). Doc may not be the deepest character he’s ever played, but he inhabits the role of the addled detective as much as any he’s ever played, and he’s funny (his reactions to Brolin are often hysterical), likable (for the most part), and a little bit poignant. I think I’ll be able to say more of his work on a second viewing, but suffice to say, he might not merit an Oscar this time around, but he does a great job nonetheless.
And then there’s Brolin, who seems to be battling Robert Duvall for the 5th Supporting Actor slot. To put it bluntly, Brolin is infinitely more deserving. He makes Bigfoot more than just a simple fascistic hardass; deep down, especially in his final scene with Doc, you get the feeling that there’s a warped kind of brotherhood between them which transcends their fundamental dislike of each other. It’s almost like Batman and the Joker, if the Joker weren’t actually a villain. Brolin finds a kernel of humanity in the obnoxious Bigfoot, and ultimately steals his part of the show.
God, is he funny. And the hilarity of his work is in the little things, too–Bigfoot is a crude fellow, and you wonder if he’s totally aware of it, or if he cares. I don’t want to give too much away, but Brolin is a sheer delight here, and I really hope he at least gets nominated. I’ll get him on my ballot if I possibly can.
I think I’ll need another viewing to fully appreciate Waterston’s work, though. I’d heard a lot of good things about her beforehand, but in part because of the nature of Shasta, the strength of her performance is tricky to evaluate. She has the same stoned, blissed-out manner as Doc, but when we see her in the later stages of the film, it’s begun to calcify into something bitter and regretful. There’s an extended scene–an extended shot, in fact–in which the nude Shasta explains things to Doc, and they make love in a fashion which, in retrospect, might shed some light on the truth of the scene. (I’ll delve more into this after my second viewing.)
Waterston’s performance, essentially, is a very subtle one, because we and Doc, at least on first viewing, aren’t entirely sure where she’s coming from. She’s not the femme fatale of a thousand noirs, because Shasta doesn’t want anyone killed–she just wants to be happy. And, seeing how her happiness is challenged brings me to a possible interpretation of the film which I’ll touch upon in a moment, but I’ll just say that, in typing this up, I definitely see why Waterston’s work was acclaimed. It’s a complex, haunted performance, and the nuances of her work, as much as the nuances of the story, are what it will take multiple viewings to unpack.
The rest of the cast are fine, but most of them appear only briefly. Reese Witherspoon, as a deputy DA whom Doc has a fledgling affair with, is amusingly prim, while Del Toro, as the brash lawyer (though not a patch on Fear and Loathing‘s Dr. Gonzo), brings his spacey brand of wit to the table. Short, in his all-too-brief appearance, is hilarious (“Greedy little hippie!”), and Wilson, who does spaced-out better than most, puts that skill to good use (but is actually quite a sympathetic character as well). I’m disappointed Roberts didn’t get more to do, but it’s just good to see him in a great film again after his time voicing A Talking Cat!?!
And Newsom, whose singing I have not wholly embraced, is quite a delightful presence, a most appropriate guide into Doc’s world; a friend once compared the novel to The Big Lebowski, and one could say Sortilége is like Sam Elliott’s Stranger, who blurs the line between omniscient character and just plain character. Newsom’s bright, breezy nature is wholly appropriate, and since I believe the role was created for the film (I didn’t finish the book), I consider her a welcome addition.
Of course, all of the technical splendor and fine acting wouldn’t have come to pass without Anderson, who, for my money, takes the period setting and dark farce of Boogie Nights and crafts a more mature and satisfying film. Given the meandering story and considerable length (148 minutes) of Inherent Vice, it never feels overlong or overindulgent (kudos must go to Leslie Jones’ editing), mostly due to Anderson’s skill. There are moments that are just purely lovely, like a flashback to happier times, with Doc and Shasta running in the rain, laughing like kids in love. There are moments of pure hilarity (two words: chocolate banana). There are great moments that recall classic noir (the fogbound scene where Doc first meets Coy), and moments which recall 60s farce (the scene in Blatnoyd’s office).
And there are moments where an undercurrent seems to become clear, maybe present in the novel, maybe not, which take the concept of free love and sex and subvert it. Throughout, women reveal themselves, whether in skimpy bathing suits, or miniskirts (or mini-miniskirts), finally culminating in Shasta baring all as she talks about being used by Wolfmann and his cronies as, if you’ll pardon the expression, a fuck-doll. One could conclude that Anderson is merely indulging the male gaze (and maybe one would be right), but I think Anderson is going for something else.
I think Anderson is commenting, however subtly, on the way in which male exploitation of women manifested itself in this supposedly enlightened and liberated era. The miniskirts, which might have begun as a rebellion against prudery, here serve to frame women for the consumption of men. And so “free love” curdles into exploitation, just as the drugs which one opened one’s mind now cloud Doc’s. One could also argue that the male gaze as used in the film is an expression of the way Doc sees the world (not unlike the scene in The Master where Freddie sees a roomful of women, all stark naked). Either way, I think there’s more going on here than simple ogling.
Anderson’s direction, wry and graceful and deadpan by turns, is matched by his script. Let’s appreciate what a miracle it is that Pynchon even approved the film to begin with, since, aside from an obscure German film which apparently adapts a few scenes of Gravity’s Rainbow (and an obscure American film which was loosely inspired by it), Pynchon has never made it to the screen, nor, as far as I know, has he ever wanted it to. But Inherent Vice is apparently one of his most straightforward works, and so it was likely as good a choice as any. Let’s hope there’s more to come.
And it would be nice if Anderson were the steward, in some fashion, of Pynchon in the cinema, since he clearly had so much fun adapting Vice. There were apparently changes (especially in regards to the end, which I’ve heard criticized), but the film to me feels authentically Andersonian, with its strange humor and ambiguous narrative. The dialogue, as befitting the material, is often vague, unfocused, and baffling, but then there’s someone like Bigfoot to cut through the bullshit and put it straight (or not so straight, like in one scene where he uses the phrase “she’s gone” in a manner which might be oblivious, or cruel–you can never be sure with Bigfoot).
Where the script may or may not fall short is in the final act, where the plot may or may not resolve itself, where many questions remain unanswered, plot threads remain unresolved, and the very reality of what we’re perceiving is open to debate. Even I’m not too sure what happened. But that might be the point. Because Doc doesn’t seem to know for sure. And he may not even care. And maybe, once I realize just what Anderson and Pynchon were trying to pull, I won’t either.
I’m not going to give a score just now. Not off one viewing. I need another, just to make sure. But I had to share my thoughts–2,700+ words’ worth–as soon as possible. Because I doubt I’ll ever be quite this baffled by it again. But I hope to never stop being delighted by it.
Score: 88/100 ↓
Seeing the film again, it becomes increasingly clear that the real theme is the death of “free love” and the 60s ideal of peace, but with those glimmers of human kindness which keep the world from crumbling into despair. What Doc ultimately does for Coy is an example of this, but then again, Doc has not yet abandoned his ideals, even as he sinks ever deeper into a haze of drugs and fantasies. It’s really a rather touching ending to a strange, often bewildering, yet delightful film.
The Oscar nominations were this morning, and Vice was nominated but twice–for Anderson’s screenplay and Mark Bridges’ costumes. Both are deserved. Anderson tells a murky tale which, when watched closely, actually holds together quite well. It’s dictated by a rather addled worldview, but it’s far from an incoherent mess. Not all the story threads perfectly cohere–nor should they–but I felt I understood all that Anderson needed me to. And the film really does have a heart, and more of it than you might imagine is in the Doc-Bigfoot dynamic, one of the more compelling bromances I’ve seen in recent years.
My opinions of the acting largely stand. I really do like Phoenix’s work here, especially his reactions: the little murmur he does when Khalil mentions Wolfmann, his cringing reactions to Bigfoot’s behavior (especially in their final scene together), or the dazed, overwhelmed chuckle he gives when Shasta re-appears. I don’t mind that he was passed over by the Oscars (or didn’t win the Globe), but he really is great. And Brolin was outright robbed–the Duvall nomination was utterly absurd and Brolin’s snub is just one of many this year. But he’s absolutely hilarious in the role, and balances the humor with a bitter, deadpan humanity which suits Brolin’s strengths perfectly.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what to make of Katherine Waterston’s performance. Part of that may be due to the slippery nature of Shasta herself; most of her screen-time is almost certainly in Doc’s imagination. I stand by what I said about her being a tragic character; the scene on the couch, where she talks about being used by Wolfmann and his cronies, is hauntingly understated, as Waterston relates a narrative of personal debasement with a faint, resigned smile, in her weary, stoned drawl, finally lying on her stomach with her only her eyes peering over the arm of the couch, eyes indifferent to what they see, because she has had her agency taken away by a man who, as she says, “can make you feel invisible”.
I was prepared to say I still didn’t totally know how I felt about Waterston, but I do. She’s great. I’m less distressed over her not getting nominated than I am over Brolin, but she will almost certainly factor into my own awards. And while Joanna Newsom likely won’t, I really liked her presence. She was a serene, likable presence, a sort of oasis of calm and common sense in the middle of the madness.
And I really like what Eric Roberts does in his two or three minutes on-screen. Wolfmann, we’re told, began taking acid and having a crisis of conscience over the millions he’d made selling houses; surely, people shouldn’t have to pay just to have a roof over their heads! His idea was to use his wealth to build free housing–and rather than see his wealth dissipated, his wife and his inner circle had him committed. He subtly conveys Wolfmann’s dazed, dreamy brokenness, and his reaction when Doc asks him about Shasta suggests a rather dark interpretation of events. It’s a great little cameo.
I still need to listen to Greenwood’s score on its own to determine my feelings, but I liked what appeared to be the original tracks, and the soundtrack is, of course, brilliant. And so, on the whole, is the film.
For me, it comes down to the final exchange between Doc and Bigfoot, where Bigfoot is clearly in a bad way and Doc, in an almost childlike tone, asks, “All you all right, brother?” Bigfoot, with rage boiling under his stoic exterior, replies, “I’m not your brother”, and goes. And Doc says, “No, but you could use a keeper.”
We all could.