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Inherent Vice

Reviewed by James Slaymaker.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson
Length 148 mins
Certificate 15
Rating **********
Filmmaking: 5  Personal enjoyment: 5

Photo from the article At first glance, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s goofball noir pastiche Inherent Vice seems like an odd move for Paul Thomas Anderson. Though one of Pynchon’s slimmest and straightforward narratives, it still contains enough plot to fill around 20 regular movies, while Anderson has been paring down his plots to their bare essentials since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love. Pynchon’s freewheeling humour has been pretty much foreign to Anderson’s filmography since Boogie Nights; the prototypical Pynchon protagonist is a perpetual slacker, trying to maintain their essential decency while having their modest life intruded upon by a huge, antagonistic network of rivals, puppetmasters and semi-hidden organizations, while Anderson tends to favour explorations of the deeply wounded and mentally unstable.

As the film plays out, however, it becomes clear how well suited their sensibilities are: both share a skill for crafting historical narratives that are scaled like epics but move to their own off-kilter rhythms, a love of combining high and low culture, and an interest in dissecting the roots of American corporate capitalism. In this case, it’s Gordita Beach circa 1970, and self-employed private detective Doc Spoertello is one of the few hippies left in the area, contending with the homogenizing land development scheme of real estate mogul Mickey Woolfman, and the general hostility of pretty much everyone around him, their distrust of the counterculture buttressed by the recent Manson trial. Over a couple of days, he takes on a few apparently simple cases: an alleged plot hatched by Woolfman’s wife and her lover to have him committed to a mental hospital; the disappearance of saxophonist Coy; and the mysterious death of Charlock, one of one of Woolfman’s newly hired, neo-nazi bodyguards. From here, the plot becomes labyrinthine to the point of intentional disorientation, with every clue spiralling out into bunch of new characters, schemes and cults. As he digs, Doc becomes increasingly convinced that all these incidents are related, and perhaps even perpetuated by a single organization. Throughout, Doc’s thoughts remain focused primarily on locating the whereabouts of his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth - now Woolfman’s mistress - who vanished shortly after feeding him information.

What emerges is a portrait of an environment in transition. Doc is an isolated man-out-of-time, set against a vast landscape of individuals and organisations who are agents of - or have been irrevocably manipulated by - the abstract forces of consumerism, privatization, surveillance and globalization. As always, Pynchon connects these to the unstoppable rise of telecommunications, the mass media, and big finance. There’s never any impression that Doc - a kind of idiot savant - can overthrow this system, he can’t even understand its inner mechanisms; he’s heroic because he’s continuing to hold on to his individualized sense of nobility, even if that means being doomed to a life of relative hardship.

Anderson is one of America’s most consistently surprising modern filmmakers. His recent compositions - almost all captured with a fluid, serpentine roving camera - are hazy yet combined with an intense sense of physicality, marked by a proximity to faces and sensitivity to the minutiae of bodies moving through space. The locations feel remarkably detailed and lived-in, every detail seems to be not only a reflection of the era but also of the characters’ tastes and the personas they’re trying to protect. There’s always been a sense of melancholy underpinning Pynchon’s despairing paranoia and bizarre humour, but Anderson roots the film in a sense of poetic romanticism unlike anything in the author’s body of work. What Anderson has foregrounded is an impressionistic sense of the rush of time passing - this is essentially a portrait of a static character who is being pushed to the edges of society so gradually he doesn’t realize it until his situation is already too late to rectify, and every attempt he makes to recapture the glory of his past only sends him deeper into solitude.

This review was published on January 31, 2015.

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