This is one of the few times I went into a movie knowing absolutely nothing about it. All I knew was that Paul Thomas Anderson, the mind behind “There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia,” directed it and that this is supposedly Daniel Day-Lewis’ last film role. What I got out of this was a film that didn’t immediately seem attractive to me by setting it in the world of women’s dressmaking (if there’s one thing in this world I don’t care to learn about, it is fashion), yet “Phantom Thread” takes a strange psychological thriller turn that almost feels like a dark modern fairy tale.
In a odd way, you have to respect “Phantom Thread” for taking a subject that would turn most people away and making it into a film that’s hard to take your eyes off of. P.T. Anderson does this by creating an unsettling atmosphere and giving the film a meticulously slow pace, almost like we can see the rusty gears in these characters heads turning methodically. It also helps that Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance adds a layer of quiet class, while still coming off as questionably creepy when left to his own devices. In fact, that’s the word I would use to describe “Phantom Thread” – creepy.
Set in 1950s England, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is one of the most prestigious dress makers in the world, crafting all sorts of gorgeous ball gowns and wedding dresses for the most elegant women around the globe. Reynolds is a skilled designer who likes to keep to himself and his work, but is also very controlling and set in his ways. He keeps having dreams about his mother watching over him from heaven, causing him to lose focus on his work. His equally controlling sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) orders him to take a break and stay out in their old home on the country side, which he does and has a chance encounter with a waitress at the local restaurant, Alma (Vicky Krieps). The two hit it off, even after he introduces her to the world of fashion, but things very quickly become tense and awkward as their lives become more and more integrated.
A lot of the power in “Phantom Thread” comes from what isn’t said or addressed, or rather what is said through the fashion and the quiet distance between these characters. Reynolds and Alma’s relationship is one built on passion and admiration, but at the same time they hardly address the hidden contempt they feel for each other outside of the dresses and garments.
But the strangest relationship of all is between Reynolds and his sister Cyril and how it comes across like they share the same mind at times. How there’s this undeniable love and trust between the two of them, built on years of growth and business, yet at the same time an undertone that there might be something more than that, which goes unaddressed, only adding to the creepy factor as Cyril looks at Alma like she’s contemplating how to kill her.
Oddly enough, the main reason “Phantom Thread” works as a strange eerie thriller is because of P.T. Anderson’s direction. Even though he’s never made a film quite like this, only he could handle this subject with such personal passion and yet a flawed hubris.
He always paints his characters in such a selfish light that makes it hard to root for them, like Daniel Planview in “There Will Be Blood” or Frank Mackey in “Magnolia,” but at the same time there’s an undeniable strive for greatness in all his characters that make them so human. Reynolds Woodcock and Alma are the essence of that, set in a cutthroat world while the two make that world more difficult for the other.
Overall, “Phantom Thread” was not at all what I expected it to be, but was enthralling nonetheless. The atmosphere is toxic and unnerving, and the slow pacing only makes the mood more unsettling. The three lead performances are subtle when they need to be, and over-the-top to make the more dramatic moments stand out. Anderson’s direction is the icing on the cake to make this the best thriller in recent memory. Even if you know nothing about this movie like I did, or turned away because of the subject matter, I would suggest giving “Phantom Thread” another chance to impress you.
Final Grade: B+