“Inherent vice in a maritime insurance policy is anything that you can’t avoid. Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters, and Doc wondered what that meant when it applied to ex old ladies.”
Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Ghoulardi Film Company, USA, 2014
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Katherine Waterson, Reese Witherspoon, Joanna Newsom
Inherent Vice (2014) is, by a considerable margin, the best new film I have seen in the past five years. At one point, I watched Inherent Vice so frequently, that I began to dream in its style. The distinctive manner in which the images are assembled remained with me to the point that it would begin to dictate and curate the content and aesthetics of my imagination. My dreams from that period were bathed in haze and sunlight, the colour palette adopting the earthy greens and browns of Doc’s jacket, and wherever there was water it would relentlessly glisten in the same way the ocean adjacent to Doc’s beachfront house does. The characters themselves would never appear, but the atmosphere and tone was undoubtedly lifted from the film. Everything about these subconscious pieces of cinema screamed Pynchon, lurching through an incoherent, free-associative narrative, accompanied with the grace and beauty of Paul Thomas Anderson’s elaborate visuals. From a purely subjective standpoint, I struggle to find faults within the film. I would vehemently defend it as the finest moment of Anderson’s career and, probably somewhat pre-emptively, declare it to be one of the finest pieces of American cinema of the decade
But it wasn’t always like this. To begin with I borderline loathed Inherent Vice, I would curse its enigmatic narrative, find myself endlessly frustrated with its cryptic dialogue and wonder where the adaptation process could have taken a wrong turn and swerved so violently into parody. So what happened? What system did my tastes and preferences pass through to become so accustomed to the film and its labyrinthine approach to comedy, sorrow and romance? Where, along the lengthy path of re-watching the film, re-reading the book and re-assessing my approach, did I begin to enjoy it, and why?
It began with a turn of phrase. In brief passing I heard the film referred to as Inherent Twice, immediately instilling in me a sense of hope that I could grow to love the film, love it in the same capacity that I love Anderson’s previous work like Magnolia (1999), or The Master (2012). So I returned to experience it again, comprehending the narrative a little better and picking up on the more subtle elements of the dense script. Compelled with this progress, I watched it a third and fourth time over the space of the following month, each time coming to appreciate the ideas and underlying anxieties of the film a little more. Gradually Inherent Vice transitioned in my mind from being a cluttered and overwrought comedy to a harrowing tragedy, one that deals in crushing revelations, loss and infinite uncertainty. Beneath the comedic, screw-ball sheen of Anderson’s latest is hidden a deeply sad film, and the gradual revealing of this dimension is the genius that I will so boldly exclaim.
One scene in particular was a notable catalyst – Doc and Shasta consult an Ouija board, asking the presence where they could possibly score more heroin during the extended dry spell that they are at the mercy of. The scene is gorgeously composed, a lone drifting camera capturing both the moment of their sheer elation at the prospect of more smack, and the bitter disappointment that replaces it when they realise the absurdity of the situation, in the same extended tracking shot. The scene unfolds in front of a derelict yard, fenced off from the pair, the land unused and empty. Doc and Shasta contemplate this sprawl of nothingness before taking refuge from the rain in a shop front, where they momentarily forget about their addictions and bask in each other’s glow, unhindered by narcotics.
The emptiness on the other side of the fence has come to represent, in my mind, the emptiness of capitalist America from the perspective of someone opposed to it. The film’s underlying message is not concerned with the complexities of the case, but rather the undeniable end of an era, the end of the summer of love and freedom, soon to be replaced by what Christian F ‘bigfoot’ Bjornson embodies – a ruthless, inhumane and mechanical approach to the world. Bigfoot’s final act, the consumption of Doc’s stash of marijuana, is the act of destruction which brings about the transition; with this deed he ends the plight of the “Hippie scum”, and simultaneously ends the chance of any form of freedom or compassion in the world. The fence between Doc and Shasta and the emptiness, separated the two eras, but that flashback was long ago and Bigfoot now forces his way into Doc’s universe to destroy everything he holds dear.
Doc understands this tragedy, he weeps out of confusion, care and fright, finally conceding defeat. Though the case has been solved, the Golden Fang is towed out of view by the coastguard in the next scene – the authority and bureaucracy Doc has been battling against for the entirety of the film, finally wins. Inherent Vice is a film about endings, it is about the end of a way of life, the end of a relationship, an era, a decade, and most of all, the end of the notion of compassion.
As a comedic, shaggy-dog, tale in the same vein as The Big Lebowski, the film is hilarious and contains moments of exquisite surreal humour, but lacks the punch or insight we have come to expect from Anderson. However, as a tragedy, a film dealing with division and power, it is a masterpiece, severely dissecting the attitudes of 1960’s America in retrospect, in order to explore in precise detail what this era meant to those alive throughout it.
I began habitually watching the film in the hope of discovering other such messages and ideas that had previously slipped through my grasp. Through this process, Owen Wilson’s character, Coy Harligen, mutated from unnecessary side plot figure, to an intense symbol of regret, someone so disillusioned with the freedom of the hippie lifestyle, that he would risk his life to return to the traditional nuclear family unit. Sortilège, the ethereal narrator, transformed from a clumsy delivery device for Pynchon’s lyrical prose, into a representation of the concept of retrospect – viewing the events from apparent distance and remembering them, as opposed to simply explaining them. Above all, however, was the transition of the relationship between Doc and Bigfoot. It is persistently alluded to, that they were once friends in some capacity, allies at least, and Anderson hints at some sort of symbiotic relationship between the pair throughout. They have the same distinctive phone for instance, they both indulge in their respective vices during an almost visually identical phone call, and before the aforementioned consumption of Doc’s weed, the two speak the same lines dialogue, at the same time.
There is a relatively well hidden exploration of the two differing ideologies in this symbiosis, a message concerning how the two characters are not so different despite their vastly different attitudes and morals. Though this is an aspect of the film I have yet to fully understand, and will probably only come to understand fully through more viewings and more reassessments of what the film means, what it says about the culture of the past and what it says about contemporary culture’s appropriation or ignorance of it.
Inherent Vice is the best new film I have seen in the last five years, and, understandably, some will not agree. All I can suggest is to watch it for a second time, a third perhaps, and consider it not as two and a half hours of complicated nonsense for the sake of comedy, but as a damning depiction of American attitudes towards its own past, a surgical procedure to better understand the decade it concerns and depicts.
- Kristofer Thomas