Inherent Vice doesn’t fare too well on most Paul Thomas Anderson lists. Whenever a mag or site takes a stab at ordering his oeuvre, PTA’s 2014 stoner puzzle about the dying days of the counterculture typically lands just ahead of his 1996 debut Hard Eight – if not dead last.
And every time such a rundown dismisses Inherent Vice, I die a little bit on the inside. It’s not just one of my favourite Anderson movies; it’s one of the best movies of the past 10 years. “Whaaaaa?” you say, that hypothetical joint just barely hanging, stuck to the moisture on your bottom lip.
Inherent Vice is a challenge. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, it’s a hazy, deceptively goofy and complex yarn where, like the glazed hero Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), we can’t even trust our own eyes. Joanna Newsom’s narrator Sortilége has a habit of appearing and disappearing as if she was never really there, much like Doc’s lost love, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who is never witnessed by anyone but our unreliable protagonist. And then she goes missing.
Doc’s search for Shasta fuels a mystery that hits like a thick fog, stumbling over hilarious and purposeful detours that have weird ways of leading back to an all-consuming organisation, the Golden Fang. A Trump-like developer, a neo-Nazi biker gang and Martin Short’s coked-out paedophile dentist are all insidiously connected to the Golden Fang, a metaphor for “The Man”.
As much as Inherent Vice is about the early ’70s, its concerns about how a fearful, fractured society allows the counterculture to get co-opted by capitalist interests can never grow old.
It takes work to wade through this plot, which is why Inherent Vice requires at least two viewings. The first time, you’re keeping track of the clues, who’s who and who’s real. Later, the scale of Anderson’s achievement hits you like a delayed high. You begin to appreciate the layers and mastery on show; how PTA’s shots and edits affect and reveal. In surprising ways, while showing you exactly what you need to see and feel.
Inherent Vice leaves you aching for a purpose and an idealism that have slipped away like Shasta Fey. It doesn’t get the undying love that it deserves … or is it just me?
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