#NYFF52, Inherent Vice: A Stoner Detective Went Searching For America

October 6, 2014 | Rhett Jones

ANIMAL will be bringing you continuing coverage from The New York Film Festival, which runs Sep 26 – Oct 12 at Film Society of Lincoln Center. Inherent Vice will be released sometime around Christmas in New York, followed by a wide-release on January 9th, 2015.

Paul Thomas Anderson has been consistently making one masterpiece after another since 1997, when he dropped Boogie Nights like a bomb on the waning American indie-scape. Each film has been more ambitious than the last and each one gets a little bit weirder. Inherent Vice might be a surprise in that it’s not on his traditionally epic scale — wherever it goes, it’s just two people talking to each other — but it’s still weird as hell.

Adapting Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, Anderson has claimed he wanted to make a film-noir like The Big Sleep and mix it with the gag-a-minute style of Airplane. What it turns out to be is a very confusing and melancholy detective story that has occasional laughs and nothing but top-notch work from everyone involved.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a private investigator who’s been enlisted by a former girlfriend to foil a conspiracy against her new man, a billionaire real estate mogul. As Doc makes his way through his investigation, he gets beat up and kicked around by various killers and cops (and, at one point, drugged with PCP by a Nazi), always recovering by smoking a joint and moving on. The conspiracy plot is just an excuse to move him from situation to situation. No one after the screening seemed to want to try to explain all the plot turns.

It’s beautifully executed, shot in an up-close style that’s atypical for Anderson. It avoids big panoramic views which helps get the ’70s period details right while working on a relatively modest budget. The stoned score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood feels both modern and ’70s-specific, mixing surf guitar and avant-garde warbles. More than anything though, it’s the performances and the characters that are most memorable. Phoenix once again proves that he’s the best actor working today. While stoners are almost universally portrayed as one-dimensional characters on film, Doc feels like a man who’s lost something heavy and maybe is a little afraid to find out what it is.

The standout supporting actor is Josh Brolin as Bigfoot Bjornsen, an LAPD detective that gives Doc a lot of trouble and is never quite clear whether he’s trying to help or hurt the investigation. At first, Bigfoot seems like a one-dimensional bad cop and Joanna Newsom’s narrator describes him as having a “malicious twinkle in his eye that says civil-rights violations.” As the story gets complicated, he’s revealed to be a maybe-sensitive man who’s recovering from his partner’s murder and there’s a late moment of understanding between Doc and Bigfoot that’s some of the best acting Brolin’s ever done. He’s able to be simultaneously inspire fear and sympathy with a single enigmatic stare.

It’s a very different film than I’d been led to believe and it will probably divide opinions. If you can go with the flow and not worry about understanding the story, you’ll find a lot to enjoy. If you want to follow every twist and are expecting a wacky comedy you’ll be disappointed. Most of all it’s a film that’s about the death of hope for a counter-culture in America. As the sixties faded and the capitalists won, those who assumed the revolution was here were set adrift.

Inherent Vice’s investigation is really about being in that exact moment the nation changed and looking around saying, “what happened?” It makes sense that the details are fuzzy.

While I wouldn’t put it as the best work Anderson’s done; I don’t think he’s reached his own high-water mark in any sense. It’s just a digression that ya know man, like… how… what were we talking about?

CHEAT SHEET: If you don’t manage to get tickets to the NYFF and you need to talk about it in conversation, here’s what to say:

– “Stop saying it’s like Lebowski, it’s nothing like Lebowski man!!!!”
– “Yup, that was a new Radiohead song in that one scene.