You found me.
I’m not sure there’s a better director working today than Paul Thomas Anderson. I don’t say this as a long-time fan that calls Magnolia his favorite film of all-time. I say it as someone who’s watched his career expand and evolve in orchestration, aesthetic, tone, and performance. There’s an air about his art that demands revisiting for introspective ruminations and profound revelations. It’s almost as though he creates these works for them to be dissected into their hybridized genres, dramatic gravitas, and historical eccentricities. But just as he’s honed his skills and mastered the medium beyond almost all of his contemporaries, it’s impossible not to see—for lack of a better term—a loss of warmth. My enjoyment of his films has become intellectual rather than emotional.
This began with There Will Be Blood and it continues now with Phantom Thread, a uniquely singular vision that screams masterpiece despite leaving me speechless not in awe but bewilderment. I can applaud its nuance and expertise with great willingness yet cannot for the life of me explain a purpose to what I’ve seen. What begins as a portrait of masculine pretentiousness crafting a callously difficult “genius” adored for his expertise and blindly given a pass for his personality instead of targeted by earned revulsion eventually moves into a feminist upending of patriarchal selfishness wherein a woman decides to fight back rather than simply be a muse waiting to be discarded. And then it takes a wild left turn I’m still struggling to believe wasn’t a dream.
It’s the latter that keeps me at arm’s length. Yes it fits the story and provides room for the film to be placed amongst the great gothic romances, but its abruptness and ease also undercuts the characters we’ve spent two hours getting to know. It calls into question everything that came before, its darkly incongruent atmosphere rendering the whole forfeit rather than itself. So while the maneuver is brilliantly conceived for replay value and complexity, it also feels superficially cheap. Because if a game has been played on the audience rather than the characters, when did it begin? Is there a moment we can pinpoint the origins of their deceit upon a second viewing or is it Anderson who plays the trick? Is the end impressive or gimmick?
This isn’t a question that can be answered on a single viewing. But just like the reality that I’ve yet to watch There Will Be Blood a second time, the coldness Phantom Thread leaves me with gives me pause about wanting another experience with it so soon. Admitting that doesn’t mean it’s a failure. On the contrary, I do believe Anderson has hit a homerun I simply cannot fully embrace. Just because I’m left feeling incomplete doesn’t mean I didn’t find the story to be a breathtaking character study of love’s unyielding ability to simultaneously conjure fear and embolden with confidence. He creates more sexual tension and sexuality in wry smiles responding to mundane activities than any amount of clinical nudity the Fifty Shades trilogy pretends is titillating.
Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is the man at its center—renowned artist who crafts dresses for royals and serves as the only critic of his work he’ll ever accept. It honestly doesn’t matter if his designs are good (and there have been numerous debates online about the fashion itself) because these women aren’t buying clothes. They’re purchasing his name. To wear a Woodcock is to be the most beautiful and confident person in the room. He’s a magician in this way, sewing little notes and charms within the seams to subconsciously protect the wearer from whatever bad luck may be presented. We’ll eventually see this is fantasy once a drunken aristocrat dares to act anything but regal while donning his masterpiece, but one incident won’t change the world’s adulation.
He keeps the best “yes man” by his side in the form of the brains behind the House of Woodcock: his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). She’s devoted to the business and the stature within their 1950s society it provides. She knows her brother inside and out, always keenly knowledgeable about what he needs to keep his genius flowing. So if the current muse has reached her expiration date (frustrated by his lack of attention and yearning for the love he told her would never arrive), Cyril will send her away. She’s a gatekeeper, confidant, and mother filling a void he needs but cannot get out of a romantic partner. Lovers want to be equal and seen. Partners want respect. And make no mistake about Cyril being in charge.
She therefore accommodates his whims, quietly eating breakfast to not distract him from his work. He provides the art and she the atmosphere wherein it’s most potent. She takes care of the practical matters and isn’t afraid to put him in his place when he oversteps his authority in that arena. One could say she’s fond of the women he chooses because their would-be “wives” aim to please before inevitably being discarded for it. They give him a mannequin to measure and inspire, his softness in meeting quickly devolving into a harsh sense of detachment. And that’s why Alma (Vicky Krieps) is dangerous. She’s more like Cyril than the usual women he meets. She’s not naïve enough to wait to be loved. Alma waits to be tossed aside.
It may seem small, but this difference is profound because it forces Reynolds to act—something he’s not accustomed to doing. He performs in isolation and enjoys the company of those who allow it. He’d rather be himself (or the brusque mask he wears) so his women leave. Alma won’t play that game, though. She sees beneath his prickly exterior and has experienced the softness in vulnerability he shares when circumstances allow it. And it’s glorious to watch his tantrum in response. He complains to Cyril instead of throwing her out and she won’t comply this time because she knows Alma eases her own burden in life by his side. So we get three characters forever changed by their close proximity. Three characters forced from inaction to provocation.
Phantom Thread is therefore more than mere romance or drama. It is in many ways a suspense thriller pitting three people who want things their way against one another in search for compromise rather than destruction. This statement may seem weird once a thimble of poisonous mushrooms enters the tale, but every action performed is for the benefit of all. Love here isn’t about sex or compassion. It’s about success. Cyril and Reynolds love each other because they are on this professional journey together built on trust and loyalty. Alma and Reynolds love each other because they provide that which they need. She’s his muse and slap in the face of reality. And he’s her benefactor, teacher, and lover able to both domineer and be pitiable when necessary.
Anderson creates a small world built upon love at its most pragmatic. Wherein emotion returned Reynolds’ status quo in the past, it falls on deaf ears now. True passion arrives from “brand” protection, not grand gestures of humanity. This two-pronged love triangle balances its platonic and romantic arms to sustain the Woodcock name as legend. Sometimes that means allowing Reynolds his ego and other times completely erasing of it. You can’t therefore escape the odd complexities at play, especially with these impeccable performances forever at war and complementary. In the end they all yearn for equality and accept the sacrifices providing it. How wonderful it is to watch Krieps pull the strings of powerhouses Day-Lewis and Manville too. She injects the life their characters had long forgot disappeared.
 Daniel Day-Lewis stars as “Reynolds Woodcock” in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laurie Sparham / Focus Features
 Vicky Krieps stars as “Alma” in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laurie Sparham / Focus Features
 Lesley Manville stars as “Cyril Woodcock” in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s PHANTOM THREAD, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laurie Sparham / Focus Features