1970. Stoner Private Detective Larry “Doc” Sportello’s (Joaquin Phoenix) ex-girl Shasta (Katherine Waterston) waltzes back into his life asking for help. Her current squeeze, sugar daddy and L.A real estate mogul Micky Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is under threat of a kidnapping plot from his wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her lover/life coach on the side Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson). As he takes up the charge and walks her to her ride writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) perfectly transposes the languid snare and bass of Can’s “Vitamin C” under the strained goodbye until that wonderful proclaiming lyric “Hey You!” underscores the appearance of the neon title; INHERENT VICE. From mere minutes into PTA’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel about the fall of the 1960s, I knew that it was my kind of film.
Inherent Vice, just like the source material is incredibly dense. It’s not for the faint of heart or mind. There are those that will immediately brand the film with the dismissive title of ‘incomprehensible.’ However, I would argue that it’s so richly complex that leaves you with a barrage of questions, impressions that may only be cobwebs initially, but with multiple viewings of those cobwebs, I’m sure, will become chains. PTA skilfully unfolds the bramble of the Los Angeles law enforcement and the increasingly sinister vertically integrated narcotic crime ring (amongst other things) ‘The Golden Fang’ to form Pynchon’s wider allegory for what he saw as the extinguishing of the 1960s ideals. It’s a town riddled with contradictory relationships, cops despise federal police, Jewish construction moguls surround themselves with Aryan brotherhood biker psychos, one time Communist blacklisted actors return from exile into starring roles in anti-Communist films; ethics have been replaced with the bottom line. There’s no point of the film though that you’re going to be able to mentally check out. Inherent Vice follows the breadcrumbs of client to client in Doc’s life, each with varying levels of significance to the next. Imagine if you’re in the middle of a season of Game of Thrones and missed a few episodes. In that brief absence there’d be new players, new power brokers and the focal points of the story has been murdered (thanks George). The closest thing to a consolidated understanding of how the pieces of this puzzle interlock is seeing Doc (Phoenix) use charcoal on a blank wall in his apartment to illegibly misspell the players he’s encountered to get a handle on how it fits together.
To be clear, the mystery at the centre of the film is merely one sphere of Inherent Vice. The subtext that’s unfolding charts the transition from 1960s psychedelic revolution that opened the collective minds of the Western world and the very moment that the film occurs we’re witnessing the industrialisation and capitalisation of drugs to physically imprison and psychologically incapacitate the populace. It’s a terrifically adapted piece that wants to honour the source material instead of co-opting it. Regular PTA cinematographer Robert Elswit is back behind the lens and delivering the most seamless 1970s aesthetic, with great assistance from production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges.
One would think on face value that PTA may have indulged in the hallucinatory possibilities of a protagonist, and cavalcade of characters, tenuous grip on reality to manipulate your perspective. The stroke of genius though is that (in all except one key moment) you’re immersed in a reality that doesn’t telegraph if there are untrustworthy elements. For example, Joanna Newsom plays Sortilège, the narrator of the film, and I can’t actually be sure that she exists except in Doc’s mind. There are times that she’s sitting beside Doc in his car on the way to a new place or person of interest and then in mere seconds between cuts to altered perspectives of the same micro journey she’s gone. There’s no attention drawn to it with a puff of smoke or staring down the barrel winking at the audience; she’s just not there and you’re left grappling with unreliability.
There’s a litany of characters that are going to be impossible to mention in this one review, however I’ll attempt to draw attention to those that leapt out of this sprawling tapestry.
Phoenix is scarily good. There’s a scene in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, where Eames (played by Tom Hardy), acquires the skin of Browning (Tom Berenger). I imagine that Phoenix is operating on a level where he’s able to slip into Doc with the same magic. His walking gate, his standard marijuana fuelled mumbling, the wide eyed paranoia all drape an extremely apt investigative mind. However, it can’t be emphasised enough that Doc’s shenanigans and Phoenix’s committed pratfalls make his performance in Inherent Vice his most hilarious as well as perhaps his greatest. One of many great scenes is when he’s interviewing Michael Kenneth Williams’ Tariq Khalil and the coincidences continue to pile. He takes the note “PARANOIA,” and you can’t help but cackle. Phoenix also seems to be acutely aware that there are times where Doc can mumble and stutter, and other times where enunciating and delivering every single syllable are critical to the progression of the film.
Josh Brolin plays Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, and it’s yet another performance that highlights that wonderful throwback feeling you get when you see the man in any role. He’s got the posture of a Montgomery Clift or Sterling Hayden while being able to commit to the vulnerability or outrageousness that Bigfoot has in store for Doc. Watching Bigfoot eat becomes a huge part of what makes the interactions with Doc. Whether it’s almost choking on all the most phallic shaped foods without ever breaking into hysterics; harassing Doc over the phone; or pouting about not getting enough extra work in T.V cop shows he’s an entity that’s all consuming. Bigfoot has a monstrous desire for conquest and squashing Doc into insignificance. His supposed “renaissance man” quality is in image and outward portrayal, behind the scenes there’s therapy, sabotage and alcoholism. It’s a performance that’s hilarious in its extremity but leaves you with a disturbing taste in your mouth.
Reese Witherspoon is a delight as Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball, Doc’s begrudging current girlfriend. You cannot deny the positive chemical reaction of Phoenix and Witherspoon on screen. The bonds built during Walk the Line underscore their bickering, glimpses of tenderness or just natural tradecraft. It adds another dimension to Doc to see that he’s able to be with a woman as straight Penny.
Benicio Del Toro waltzes into the film as Sauncho Smilax, Esq, a maritime lawyer, coming to Doc’s aide while he’s being harassed by Bulldog (Brolin). Del Toro’s Smilax is the soundest ally to the happenings surrounding ‘The Golden Fang,’ providing historical context that leads Doc on the right pathway toward ‘The Golden Fang.’ There’s a Hugh Hefner quality to Sauncho, which shows he’s able to saunter around the dark stuff, without ever having to get his hands dirty or be in any immediate danger.
I’m almost sure that Owen Wilson is Coy Harlingen, a former session saxophonist turned snitch, embedded within ‘the Golden Fang’ amongst other criminal organisations. Coy believes that being away from his wife Hope (Jena Malone), after their toxic decline into heroin addiction, means a chance at a better life for their family. Wilson has always had that zen, hippy vibe about him in every role, so the overalls fit, so-to-speak. Martin Short stumbles into Doc’s world playing the sexual deviant dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, who had been pursuing a gross relationship with the decades younger Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse) a former missing person client of Doc’s. Despite the fact that he’s doing deplorable things, PTA problematises him with Short’s lovability.
Last, but most certainly not least, is Katherine Waterston playing our femme fatale Shasta Fay Hepworth at the centre of this psychedelic noir; and boy is she memorable. Not only does she radiate unquantifiable warmth (shown mostly through flashback) but once she returns to Doc’s life it’s as if the hopeful cool has been drawn out of her to the point that she’s a force for decay, soothed with acts that breed danger and pain. She takes Doc and thereby Inherent Vice to the poles of love and despair.
Inherent Vice, as the film describes, means a risk that cannot be avoided. Inherent Vice isn’t going to be a film that you can see once; but it’s so spectacularly put together that you’re going to be desperate to. PTA, Pynchon, Phoenix and co. produce something unavoidably brilliant.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon)
Starring: Joanna Newsom, Katherine Waterston, Joaquin Phoenix, Jordan Christian Hearn, Taylor Bonin, Jeannie Berlin, Josh Brolin, Eric Roberts, Serena Scott Thomas, Maya Rudolph, Martin Dew, Michael Kenneth Williams, Hong Chau, Shannon Collis, Christopher Allen Nelson, Benicio Del Toro, Catherine Haena Kim, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Vivienne Khaledi, Yvette Yates, Andrew Simpson, Joe Dioletto, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Jaeger, Timothy Simons, Jack Kelly , Jillian Bell, Christian Williams, The Growlers, Elaine Tan, Belladonna, Alina Gatti, Martin Short, Sasha Pieterse, Emmet Unverzagt, Jefferson Mays, Erica Sullivan, Eva Fisher, Jackie Michele Johnson, Katie Schwartz, Charley Morgan, Keith Jardine, Delaina Mitchell, Peter McRobbie, Shannon C. Sullivan, Martin Donovan, Samantha Lemole, Madison Leisle, Liam Van Joosten, Matt Doyle, Amy Ferguson, Emma Dumont