The beautiful alienation of Paul Thomas Anderson films

James Cole Clay // Film Critic

When staring at the list of Paul Thomas Anderson’s lead characters, you can’t help but notice that these people have isolated themselves in one way or another. Anderson doesn’t create misanthropes outright. They’re looking for a higher plain of existence.

Anderson alienates his characters who attempting to play a part in conventional society. It’s the work of a mad genius, but you don’t necessarily have to get mad before you discover the genius with his work. It’s all there for you. It’s inviting and may not be as challenging as you’ve once heard. Each are striving for something greater, and each have their own ways how to achieve that goal.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s Daniel Plainview is a cut throat capitalist.PUNCH DRUNK LOVE’s Barry Egan just wants a sense of social normalcy. THE MASTER’s Freddie Quell is frantically looking for an unknown truth. AndPHANTOM THREAD’s Reynolds Woodcock is just maintaining the status quo.

Paul Thomas Anderson. Photo by Wilson Webb/Ghoulardi Film C/REX/Shutterstock.

These guys are a small part of something special that’s been going on in cinema over the past 20 years. That’s the alienating yet welcoming gaze of Anderson’s camera lens. He chooses to show us the dutch-angle equivalent of a snapshot into classic Americana (aside from PHANTOM THREAD); everything is just slightly tilted upwards. He captures a heightened sense of reality that borders on the lines of subtlety controlled mania. There’s a menace that lurks underneath. He’s playing with our expectations of toxic behavior and turning it into at their core simple stories.

He’s a filmmaker that draws you in close to the action, but leaves you feeling estranged while searching for its themes. Many casual filmgoers may call his work “pretentious,” but I have found that Anderson is doing everything he can to give his films a stamp that will be personal for each individual that connects with the work — and not with some humdrum, “I’ll let the audience figure it out for themselves kind of way.” That’s how hacks and pandering filmmakers operate. There’s a warmth to his work if you can find it.

BOOGIE NIGHTS has a sense of community. THE MASTER is about health, wellness and family. PHANTOM THREAD is about give-and-take in a committed relationship. (Not quite sure yet on THERE WILL BE BLOOD, because that one is still pretty calloused.) There is much more to Anderson’s films, but I truly believe he is looking to connect with his audience, rather than leaving us divided to figure out the existential grandeur he’s presenting. He wants us to delight and rejoice in discovery along with him. He’s one of the few filmmakers who actually has a discourse with his audience, while keeping a squinting distance from the action.

However, there’s a certain amount of difficulty that goes into finding the connective tissue of his work. Aesthetically, there’s beauty within the frames, which have traditionally been done by Robert Elswitt (aside from his most recent work: THE MASTER and PHANTOM THREAD). There’s always going to be an outlier here and there, but let’s not split hairs despite the calculated work of Anderson’s. He’s attempting to draw in the audience with an array of shots from sweeping vistas to claustrophobic closeups taken from a classic cinematic feeling of comfort, but with feverish menace that tend to cause a bit of purposeful discomfort that quite literally sits with its audience.

His latest, PHANTOM THREAD, is a movie I kind of detested upon first viewing. I got nothing out of the film. In fact, I was a bit angry and annoyed with Anderson, as I had felt seduced by the promise of a great work and abandoned by something pretty minimal compared to expectations. A line in Anderson’s script spoken by Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock says, “Expectations and assumptions tend to lead to heartbreak.” After that, it all clicked: Just go with the ebbs and flows of life, don’t put so much stock in a filmmaker that has challenged, and, for better or for worse, made me a more complete film lover. Don’t even try to fully trust a filmmaker. Being alienated is a scary and frustrating place to exist over the course of a 2-plus-hour movie, but it can also be rewarding.

Film, traditionally, isn’t meant to challenge (at least as far as Hollywood is concerned), and many may find watching Anderson’s films equivalent to eating their vegetables. But no matter how odd, how still, or how lonely his films can be, it always seems that when the credits roll, there’s a little bit of Anderson that leaves the theater with you.

In the end, Anderson’s films aren’t for everybody. To try and convince someone otherwise may result in a forced response of, “Yeah, that was good…” or a spiteful “I hated it,” but the whole point is… arrive at a film when the time comes. There is no right time or wrong time. There’s psychology at play here. Anderson’s films aren’t supposed to be a challenge; it’s an invitation.

PHANTOM THREAD is now playing in theaters.

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