By Alex Gougeon
Inherent Vice (2014) Neo-Noir, Crime-Comedy
Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon
Written/Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston
In just over two decades, Paul Thomas Anderson has undoubtedly crafted some of the most eccentric and nuances films to come out of major Hollywood productions. From the character driven study of the “golden age” of porn in Boogie Nights, to the dark yet uplifting romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love, and the towering critically acclaimed period drama There Will Be Blood, Anderson continues to delve into new realities and memorable characters. Describing Anderson’s seventh film as another eccentric addition to his works is an understatement. Inherent Vice may be his most ambitious and polarizing film yet.
The film centers on hippie private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (played by a mutton-chopped Joaquin Phoenix) in his attempt to help his ex-lover Shasta uncover the disappearance and possible conspiracy against her new powerful real estate king boyfriend. We follow Doc interact with multiple characters including an uncompromising police detective, neo-Nazi convict, heroin addicted musician, ex-girlfriend district attorney, and a druggy dentist. Doc weaves through the cultural backdrop of early 1970’s California as the story enters into a hazed, paranoid frenzy of discovering the truth behind shady characters and situations. Much like Doc’s muddled perspective on the conundrum at hand, Anderson doesn’t reveal much to the audience. Instead, we stare confused and intrigued, much like Phoenix’s incredibly physical performance as the stoned private eye.
Like Pynchon’s novel, the continuous plot and sub-plot derailments are accompanied by sharp, witty, dialogue. Anderson lifts much of the screenplay straight from the novel and complements this with his familiar use of long takes showcasing humorous character banter. Each scene, whether introducing or revisiting a character, provides dialogue which both confuses and loosely (if that) ties everything together. This places Doc (and the audience) into a maze of details and puzzles.
The film works deliberately on providing just enough information to keep you interested, but make you laugh and focus on the character relations. Josh Brolin’s performance as the hard-headed hippie-hating detective Bigfoot Bjornson dominates the screen with a stark contrast between Doc’s laid back naivety. The duo’s interaction almost harks back to the all too familiar buddy cop character tropes of many police procedural or crime films. If Bjornson isn’t beating Doc because of hippie prejudice and insecurities, or his interference with the case, they sit together and discuss evidence and leads over pancakes. Both men work for the law and are heavily influenced by the women in their lives, but differ based on their social/cultural position. Many scenes play on this interaction between Doc’s hippie personality and its relation and position at the end of the 60’s counterculture era.
Inherent Vice’s charm doesn’t just lie in its characters, but with its exuberant atmosphere. Photographed in 35mm, the film looks incredibly appropriate to the costumes and period detail accompanied by a vibrant and melodic score from Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood. Each scene is detailed enough to make it “feel” like the past (especially comparing it to films from the 70’s) without it becoming a caricature of representing the cultural aesthetic. Constant references to the Manson family and newly elected president Richard Nixon also increases the relevance of paranoia and confusion as Doc lives in the transition at the end of the 60’s.
Like Anderson’s previous two films The Master and There Will Be Blood, the film’s sense of place and surrounding almost becomes a character in itself, much like the empty barren landscape of Blood and the isolated boat in the vast ocean in The Master. The richly detailed 1970’s Los Angeles contributes to the Detective/Noir genre, where everything is shady and people are suspect. While Inherent Vice is often comedic, this atmospheric sense of place adds to the creeping paranoia as Doc falls deeper into the plot. This is shown nearing towards the third act of the film, where the slapstick humor and clever banter switch to darker dramatic scenes of aggressive sex and desperate violence.
Anderson’s push for atmosphere and character over a cohesive plot may polarize many, but is not too surprising considering his last few films took this direction. The acting and dialogue alone is worthy of watching the film, but the cinematography and blend of the Detective Neo-Noir and Stoner genres creates the full experience. Inherent Vice may just be that. Something to experience instead of fully understand.
Alex Gougeon is a Toronto-Based freelance Writer, Musician and Videographer who loves everything Film and Music.