(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
It's rare these days that a film stays with me quite the way Inherent Vice has. Circling slowly in my brain, key scenes echoing, ambiguities illuminating, lines of dialogue repeating. It is a wonderful mess; a combination of pitch-black comedy, stoner slapstick, sly satire, grimy sunshine noir, and romantic drama. Anderson, it seems, can do anything, and here, in adapting the novel by Thomas Pynchon, he more or less abandons traditional plot in favour of an episodic series of encounters between Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, brilliant as ever), a hippie P.I. in 1970 Long Beach and various eccentrics and personalities he encounters in the course of an investigation.
That investigation is for his ex-girlfriend (ex old-lady in the parlance of the film), Shasta (Katherine Waterston, glowing) who presents him with the disappearance of her current boyfriend, real estate mogul Wolfman (Eric Roberts), and involves him in a hilariously complex web of nazis, black power militants, loan sharks, surf horn players, smugglers, dentists and FBI men. Complicating this is the strange mutual dependence Doc and local police detective Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) share, his relationship with a horny Assistant D.A. (Reese Witherspoon), and the fact that he is clearly still in love with Shasta. That love - and the loss and regret with which is entwined - give the often idiosyncratic, distinctively odd encounters of much of the rest of the film a powerful resonance. Doc is hurting, wearing a baffled look of suffering, even as he trades quips with actors like Owen Wilson, Martin Short and Benicio Del Toro, and Anderson keeps the camera trained on Doc's face, allowing us to confront the darkness in Phoenix's work. It makes for a slightly claustrophobic, densely layered film, and the way all these characters mount up only increases that sense. Doc takes on another case - then another - and yet all three turn out to be related.
Much of this is narrated by his friend and earth mother, Sortilège (Joanna Newsome), who also seems to accompany him, in spirit at least, as he drives around L.A., and who appears to possess some sort of second sight.
Anderson's work here is subtle and restrained, classical and always effective, with few of the flourishes from his earlier work. He charms some exceptional performances from his cast. The standout is probably Brolin, who imbues Bigfoot with pathos and humour ("Moto panacuku!!" has been in my head for days now) and even a hint of tragedy. Waterston is also fantastic in her scenes; careful around Doc and trying to squash her own feelings, and yet, still, somehow, in a manner unique to this movie: a femme fatale.
That is the thing; I've never seen a movie quite so unique. You can see influences, but Inherent Vice has its own tone and register, its own rhythms and flow. And they are oddly bewitching. Doc and Shasta are at the heart of this film, their relationship, its dissolution, the damage it caused, and that is as true in the last scene as it is when we first meet her. The edge of pain running through that storyline gives Inherent Vice it's peculiar charge, and echoes the theme of the souring and death of the hippie dream.
That forgets the key to the film: it is so much fun. Hilarious, informative, provocative, sexy, it even ends with a scene of grimy, ugly violence, before immediately undercutting that with a joke about the situation.
A great film from a great filmmaker.