A great deal of effort seems to have been dedicated to unravelling the plot to Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh feature. By some duality of design it seems to actively try to confuse to the point of incoherence while still enticing viewers to pick it apart and piece it together. If this is not its intent then perhaps this is a result of Anderson’s reputation. Since reaching a level of storytelling maturity with both There Will Be Blood and The Master, the critical acclaim surrounding Anderson’s films has deservedly elevated them to the level of film texts as well as pieces of entertainment, ranking him alongside Kubrick, Altman and Malick as one of the highest examples of American auteurs. And while this means his films certainly deserve a high level of viewing attention, it also acts as something of a hindrance when attempting to make sense of a nonsensical film.
The plot, as best can be made of it, is a fairly faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. We follow the Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), a mixed up pothead private eye who is sent on the trail of a mystery by his ‘ex-old lady’ Shasta (Katherine Waterston) involving her current billionaire boyfriend and his wife’s plot to incarcerate him in a mental institution in order to get at his wealth. This fairly tight set-up proves only to be the jumping board though into an ensuing cavalcade of bizarre encounters with even more bizarre and eccentric characters: from outlaws to law men. Doc winds caught between drug smugglers, anti-subversive groups, shady FBI operations, nemesis cops and various femme fatales. All the while constantly playing catch up with their intertwining involvement with each other.
If all of this sounds like a return to the exuberance of Anderson’s earlier ensemble pieces, à la Boogie Nights, well, it is and it isn’t. The change in tone in Anderson’s work after the five year gap between Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood is undeniable, and his career can very much be split into two distinct halves, which leaves Inherent Vice sat uncomfortably somewhere in-between. It seems to attempt a return to the liveliness of his earlier work while holding onto the maturity of execution he has harnessed in the later. The genuinely funny comedy sequences play out between slow burning conversations and delicate scene pacing. One moment the Doc is getting knocked out by an anonymous baton emerging cartoonishly out of frame, the next he is meeting in an atmospheric smoke filled dockyard to learn more of the mysterious boat/ dentist tax shelter/ Indochinese triad-like entity known as the Golden Fang, accomplished all in one long hovering shot.
Simultaneously enjoyable and distracting, this rather awkward combination of tones could be interpreted as a fitting representation of the period in which the story is set and, potentially, what the film attempts to work into its overall thematic statement. Set at the tail end of the 60’s, the Hippie Revolution dying, the story inhabits a world moving awkwardly from one era into the next. The big comedown after the protests of ‘68 sobered up the youth of America, who found the world was more confusing and nuanced than their goals could ever have hoped to rectify. There are snitches hiding in political activist groups, elusive drug cartels, real estate tycoons wanting to become Nazis, actors suspiciously shifting in attitudes towards communism, contracted killers carrying out the dirty work of the law. All of it somehow connecting into one Hippie nightmare of mass conspiracy.
There are even references to the Manson murders, which, along with the violent outbreak at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont 1969, helped to nail shut the coffin on the dreams of peace and love prevailing throughout the ‘60s and woke America’s counter-culture up to the futility of fighting against the confusing terror which was lurking all around. Nothing makes any sense – to the characters or to us.
At the centre of it all is Doc, a relic of an age fast departing, still clinging to his lifestyle of long unkempt hair and continual dose of narcotics, trying to make sense of the things going on around him. Even he needs to physically map out the vast band of characters in the film and their involvement with each other, as well might the audience. The film is confusing almost to the point of farce, but it is conceivably done so by design.
Whether or not Inherent Vice deserves to be treated as an auteurist text (whether it even desires it) is up for debate. There is certainly something tantalising enough beneath the surface to scratch away at, but it feels more in service of an enjoyable Labowski-esque caper as oppose to anything which tries to invoke any deep reflection after leaving the theatre.
– Dan Noall, 2015