Review: ‘Phantom Thread’ is an eerie, surprisingly funny masterpiece


Courtesy of Focus Features

“Phantom Thread is ostensibly a period drama, but in its opening moments establishes that there’s much more going on here.”

Joe Cross, Staff Writer

Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s films so far this decade resemble few others, even his own. Beginning with 2012’s “The Master,” a cinematic puzzle that still hasn’t quite been solved, his films have lacked a clear narrative and direction, a trend that continued with his unjustly-maligned 2014 epic “Inherent Vice.” Just as that film promised a comic neo-noir along the lines of “The Long Goodbye” and “The Big Lebowski,” only to reveal itself to be something much subtler, Anderson’s latest work “Phantom Thread” is ostensibly a period drama, but in its opening moments establishes that there’s much more going on here.

The film opens with women entering a fashion house and modeling various dresses. We are shown very little about Day-Lewis’ fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, only his meticulous morning routine, but it is generally understood that even wearing a dress he designs is something of an honor. Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress that Reynolds immediately becomes fond of, disrupts this order in his life, and the main conflict is established. If the film seems repetitive at times, that’s exactly the point. The Woodcocks, Reynolds and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) live by a certain routine, and the arrival of someone who refuses to submit to that routine like all the other models has caused chaos and disorder.

But what makes “Phantom Thread” stand out from the overcrowded period-drama field is its refusal to play all its cards early. A scene early on with Woodcock taking Alma’s bodily measurements is utterly horrific and dehumanizing, instead of being shown as something routine for this line of work. But soon after, a scene with Alma taking initiative and stealing one of Reynolds’ dresses back from someone she has deemed unfit to wear it is oddly funny and romantic. At parts, it almost seems that the film is an offbeat romantic comedy.

Day-Lewis embodies this character down to the littlest details (for example, the numerous small cuts on his hands from a lifetime of sewing), and delivers scathing one-liners that alternate between being clever and making him look like a spoiled child. Unlike his Oscar-winning roles in “There Will Be Blood” and “Lincoln,” here his tendency to overact works perfectly, as the character is extremely stuck-up. That being said, it’s Krieps and Lesley Manville, as Reynolds’ controlling sister Cyril, who manages to steal the show. Krieps’ performance as Alma is masterful, and she manages to keep her character’s intentions mysterious until the film’s final moments. So much of her performance depends on her facial expressions, and she perfectly delivers every scathing glare and lovestruck smile. Both Krieps and Manville are able to command the screen with a simple glance or gesture, and Anderson utilizes their talent spectacularly. Frequent Anderson collaborator and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood delivers his finest score yet, one that is as lush and beautifully eerie as the film it accompanies.

Because of the Oscar nominations its received, “Phantom Thread” is likely to become Anderson’s biggest financial success since “There Will Be Blood.” Some will inevitably dismiss the film as boring, but if you’re willing to give it your full attention, “Phantom Thread” is as eerie, funny, suspenseful, and lovely as it is bizarre.