‘Was it possible, that at every gathering – concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever – those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?’
– Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
That quote from Pynchon’s novel doesn’t quite reach Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation, but it may as well. In every line of inquiry on which Joaquin Phoenix’s supremely confused Doc Sportello takes, there is an overwhelming sense that beyond the cloudy fog of marijuana smoke lies a dark, elite force, utilising the paranoia of the masses to their advantage. However, are these ‘dark crews’ merely a drug-induced hallucination, or are they real? Maybe, just maybe, those ancient forces of greed and fear have some sway on why everything is just so goddamn confusing and why we can never quite figure it all out.
And in this frenzied world of dead ends and endless questions, Anderson never provides an answer. Much like his last film The Master, the film works as a time machine, taking us back to particular people doing particular things. Anderson has always shied away from discussing the overlying themes beneath his films, instead in interviews wanting to focus on the atmosphere of a time period and the affinity he holds with the characters he writes. His art appears to imitate life, one filled with countless ideas and endless crossroads of people, places, things, and one that never will provide us with a conclusion. If there is one theme to Anderson’s (later) work, it is of ideas meeting and never quite getting along.
Most reviews of the film pass over its totally unretainable plot and instead call upon the viewer to watch the film as a construction of atmosphere (a trip back to Manson-era California where the darker times of the 70s lie ahead). However trying (and failing) to understand the plot, is integral to the viewing experience and we are left in the same position as Doc, bewildered. A binary distinction between plot and atmosphere should be avoided; the shape-shifting plot constructs the atmosphere of the film.
Doc’s many ramblings into blind alleys of batshit insane addict-cum-dentists, ‘Last Supper’-style pizza parties headed by a supposedly dead saxophonist… all lead to the fulcrum of this conspiracy-theory hocus-pocus: the Golden Fang. Is it a drug cartel… or no wait… a boat… or… a tax dodging syndicate…? Through Doc, the viewer themselves become private investigators, in a world where identities are switched as often as a joint is passed.
Phoenix is at his best in these schizophrenic moments of the film. And, however sinister at times, the film is also deeply funny. Indeed, profoundly sombre moments can be instantly dovetailed with (in the words of Anderson) ‘the best fart jokes’. This constant play between the two evidently adds to absurdity, and in this balancing act, Phoenix is very impressive.
Singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom provides voiceover and lends powerful female insight to the film’s masculine world; Katherine Waterston is equally wonderful as Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s ex-girlfriend gone missing, (despite her appearance in one erotic scene that really shouldn’t be there).
There is no doubt however, that the real star of the show is Josh Brolin. Where Phoenix sometimes doesn’t quite hit all the comedic notes you hope for, Brolin supplies them in abundance (in one scene, he pours an entire tray of weed into his mouth). Brolin’s and Phoenix’s interaction underlines the interconnection between the conservatives and the hippies of the film; the two stereotypes are shown to occupy a surprisingly similar world and whilst conflict dominates the relations between the two characters, there are also moments of kinship.
Robert Elswitt’s beautiful 35mm cinematography (the only film projected on celluloid at New York Film Festival this year) really does a hell of a lot in recreating the sixties/seventies epoch of the film. Also notable in Anderson’s recent films are colour schemes: There Will Be Blood focused on light brown and black; The Master blue and white; and Inherent Vice is neon pink and green (so emphatically announced with the title card at the beginning of the film, alongside a resounding drumbeat and guitar chord of Can’s track Vitamin C).
In fact, the film is more memorably dominated sonically by its jukebox soundtrack than by Johnny Greenwood’s original score, which is nowhere near as pervasive as in his past two collaborations with Anderson. The musical set pieces in the film all belong to Neil Young et al and hark back to Anderson’s early days, where popular artists dominate the soundtrack over a composer’s single score.
The film will have both detractors and a cult following – comparisons with The Big Lebowski here are admittedly lazy but apt. The mention of the Coen brothers’ film makes clear that Inherent Vice does not sit completely comfortably besides any of Anderson’s previous films. It is, for him, a departure from the past, into another past… in its complexities, it fits strangely, hazily into his whole oeuvre. Repeated viewings will both reward and confound the viewer as Doc’s (and our) unanswerable questions remain. Inherent Vice has been described as a hallucinatory trip, and just like a drug infused night of debauchery, the film is wild, raucous and jumps and leaps from all corners. But just like drugs at their worst, the film has you staring into dark possibilities that may (or may not) be palpable, mysterious detections that never will become discoveries and creates an unsettling feeling in your stomach that won’t ever be diagnosed, because diagnosis is not the answer. The answer is lurking in some far away corner that you’ll never reach, but oh how fun the search can be.