|Joaquin Phoenix stars in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice.|
Ever wandered through the early morning fog? The dim glow of street lights peaks through the haze but fails to illuminate the shapes whose outlines you recognize but do not recall. The farther you walk, the thicker it gets, and when you reach the end of the road, there is no path to follow but back the way you came. Or, is that gone, too? Maybe you did not wake up, and your 4 a.m. stroll is nothing but a dream. You fell asleep on the couch and imagined a trip you never took. You cannot know for sure.
With Inherent Vice, director Paul Thomas Anderson invites audiences along on his own 4 a.m. stroll, and as could be expected, the experience is decidedly singular. Never one to make the same movie twice, Anderson adapts the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name and puts his own spin on the neo-noir detective story at its core. The results are a stunning and complex mix of radical art house experiment, investigative thriller, and stoner comedy. As I said – singular.
After the classically mounted, even baroque The Master, Anderson has spun around 180 degrees to face the seedy, sunny underbelly of Southern California in 1970. Making the turn with him is The Master star Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Doc Sportello, a private investigator more interested in smoking weed than solving cases – that is, until ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) walks back into his life.
Shasta is dating billionaire real estate mogul Mickey Wolfman. Wolfman’s wife and her lover are plotting to kidnap him and commit him to an insane asylum – or “loony bin” in the parlance of the film. Though their aim is clear, their motive is a little fuzzy, which could stand in as the caveat for most characters’ motives in Inherent Vice. In any event, they want Shasta’s help to carry out the crime, so she enlists Doc to get her out of her predicament and solve the mystery.
All of this is laid out in the film’s first scene, even before the opening credits have played. Despite clocking in at a couple minutes shy of two-and-a-half hours, Inherent Vice moves along with the speed of a bullet. The minute Shasta leaves Doc’s apartment the first time, he is thrown headlong into a complex web of underworld and law enforcement syndicates with complementary and contradictory goals, usually both at once.
To describe the plot further, however, would be a disservice to the film. Inherent Vice is not what happens; it is how it happens. The reveal of a kidnapping conspiracy may be the inciting incident, but the nuts and bolts of the mystery and its ultimate resolution are almost tangential to the heart of Anderson’s film. If you are trying to keep tabs on the plot – which can be done, as the picture is not as labyrinthine as some would have you believe – you are missing the grander experience.
The film plays equally well as absurdly heightened reality or drug-induced hallucination, but its tone never wavers because Anderson understands that dreams have their own internal logic. Anything can come true if you can imagine it, but you cannot see what you cannot believe. As Doc meanders through the marijuana haze of his life, he runs into character after character operating off the same dream logic he does, yet critically, they are consistent always to the people we know them as.
This is not Fellini-esque surrealism. No one breaks into song or dance. There are no talking animals or whimsical spirit guides. While the movie is laugh-out-loud funny at times, we never get the sense this would be a fun or magical world in which to live. This is a world in pain and in recovery at the same time. As the war in Vietnam continues to take its toll on the national morale, the hippie culture that developed around it is burning out faster than their roach clips can handle.
In a cast more sprawling than any in recent memory, we meet druggies, hippies, gangsters, bikers, policemen, Feds, musicians, families, and more. Almost no one is an innocent bystander. Perhaps the biggest joke in the film comes during one of its saddest scenes, when a wife and mother tells Doc about her former heroin addiction. She did not know the drugs could pass through breast milk. She shows Doc a picture of what she did to her baby. Doc’s hysterical reaction is a tremendous laugh for the audience, but the shame she feels and the pain she caused are real. There are no bystanders.
Just because you cannot stay out of the game does not mean you should play it either. Josh Brolin plays Bigfoot Bjornson, a straight-laced homicide detective and wannabe actor who loathes hippies and has a love-hate relationship with Doc. Bigfoot is a man who does not belong to any of the worlds he inhabits. He simply performs the roles assigned to him because what else is he supposed to do? He is not a man out of time. He has no time, and Brolin is excellent at portraying this inner turmoil realized as misplaced outward aggression.
Waterston’s Shasta has the opposite problem. She is fully comfortable in her own skin and fits in anywhere she chooses to go, but she is such a user – in more ways than one – she finds herself with nowhere left to choose, so she returns to Doc. It is a common scenario in film and in life. We destroy our present and cloud the future, so we revert to the past, looking for stability and hoping nothing has changed.
This rarely works because no matter how often we go back, we cannot stay in the past. We move forward and circle back, move forward and circle back, and only the lucky few realize they are caught in a loop. Shasta shows up at Doc’s doorstep over and over. Doc finds a missing girl he has already found. The rich get rich, lose it, and regain it. Respect and love ebb and flow with tide. People come and go and fall and rise. Nothing changes, but nothing remains.
Like a man trapped in a hurricane who keeps running toward the eye rather than away from the storm, Doc is trapped by circumstance and self. He twists and turns, bends and breaks, swirls and whirls in every direction but forward. Phoenix is made for this role. Despite a career spent playing introverts who pass the time by chasing temptation and dodging consequence (Walk the Line, Gladiator, I’m Still Here, We Own the Night, and I could go on), Phoenix feels uniquely suited for the part of a crusader who puts himself in harm’s way in an effort to do what is right.
With a shaggy head of hair and the constant glaze of marijuana in his eyes, Phoenix’s Doc exudes self-confidence even as he is often baffled by the events unfolding around him. He does not think twice about carrying only his bravado into the den of a hired killer who keeps the company of neo-Nazis. He ambles comfortably around places he does not belong, communes with hippies and commandos alike with equal ease, and faces down guns like he was born in front of a firing squad.
Yet, as so many of his cinematic predecessors, what he cannot control is his love of the one who got away: Shasta. The film’s best scene is the second time she shows up at his home. Anderson specializes in scenes of two people confronting the truth about each other and their shared past in which one person talks and the other just listens as the pain builds.
Here, Shasta does the talking as she bares herself flesh and soul to him. She is equal parts vulnerable and cunning, like a wounded cat that will strike if you attempt to help it. Waterston is playing notes all over the scale in this scene, and she hits every one of them with precision and the kind of tonal depth that comes from the confluence of great writing, great acting, and great directing.
Phoenix listens as well as anyone in the game, and though we see only the shadows of his face, the anger and love he feels are palpable. For everything she has done to him and what she is trying to do to him now, he should hate her, but “should” does not really play a part in the maelstrom of emotion. A scene that lasts only a few minutes communicates a lifetime worth of sentiment. It all ends with Doc exploding in a fit of violent passion, and why wouldn’t it? This is his dream.
See it? Yes.