Release Date: 30 January 2015
Running Time: 148 min
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterson, Joanna Newsom, Martin Short
The beauty of private detectives is that they can mix with anyone. Sam Spade is just as comfortable talking with crime lords as he is police captains, while drunks and debutants are equally as likely to receive a tongue lashing from Phil Marlowe. They exist in a grey area between two camps; able to go anywhere and answering only to their own personal code of honour. All of which brings us neatly to Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh film Inherent Vice, a seventies set detective story adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name and a work that is steeped in the history of countless books and films before it.
Like most films of the genre, Inherent Vice begins with a beautiful woman entering the protagonist’s office and asking for help. The only difference here is that instead of a tough-talking, hard-boiled sleuth in the mould of Humphrey Bogart, our hero is a frazzled long-hair with dirty feet and huge muttonchops named Doc Sportello. Tasked with finding a missing millionaire, Doc’s investigation encompasses hippies, triads, nazis and dentists as the plot slowly unfurls like blue-tinged reefer smoke.
The story is wilfully obtuse and it’s not always clear how elements of the case fit together, or if they fit together at all. The vagaries of the plot may infuriate some, but private eye movies have always been a genre that favour style and mood over rigorous plotting. Nobody really remembers exactly who killed who in The Big Sleep (even original author Raymond Chandler was at a loss as to the exact ins and outs) they just remember how cool Philip Marlowe was. Much the same can be said of Inherent Vice, a film with a muddy, confusing plot that not only harks back to classic noir, but also puts the audience in the same befuddled headspace as its permastoned protagonist.
To focus on the mystery elements of the plot would be to miss the point however; like most of Anderson’s films, Inherent Vice is an examination of a particular time in American history. From the hedonism of 70s California in Boogie Nights, to the post-war malaise of The Master, Anderson has a knack for pinpointing the social anxieties of specific historical periods, focusing here on the slow erosion of hippy idealism at the start of the 70s. Possibly Anderson’s funniest film to date – this is almost a stoner comedy at times – Inherent Vice is shot through with an absurdist streak that brings to mind the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Yet, with the Manson trials taking place in the background and a fractured counterculture that has ditched psychedelics in favour of opiates, there’s also a sense of lost innocence as Doc and his friends fecklessly bum about, little realising that the world is changing around them, leaving them behind.
This elegiac tone is carried over with a bleary, washed-out look of steely blues and greys and uses lengthy takes and slow fades between scenes to lend a woozy, strung-out feel. It may not be Anderson’s prettiest film, but it certainly ranks as one of his most evocative of a time, place and state of mind. The score by Jonny Greenwood is similarly low-key, working far more discreetly than his previous soundtrack work for Anderson in There Will Be Blood and The Master, but shows a lightness of touch and versatility that works perfectly in context.
To top it off, Inherent Vice is also chock-full of great performances. Joaquin Phoenix is superb in the lead role of Doc, at times hysterically gormless and at others devastatingly vulnerable while Josh Brolin’s brutish cop ‘Big Foot’ Bjornsen is a big angry bear of a man who masks his insecurities with a tough guy exterior. There’s also more cameos than you can shake a (Thai) stick at, ranging from the knowing (Benicio Del Toro plays a drug addled attorney not too far off his character in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) to Martin Short’s deranged coke-fiend.
Inherent Vice is destined to be a cult classic in a few years time. Do yourselves a favour and watch it now.