Paul Thomas Anderson has long flirted with impressionism. Aside from the cinematic typhoon that is Magnolia, the director’s initial streak – from Hard Eight through to There Will Be Blood – is full of distinctly narrative-based movies, with frequent breaks dedicated to visual projections of their characters’ inner battles. But in 2012, he leapt straight into the psychotic episodes of Punch-Drunk Love‘s Barry Egan and emerged again with The Master, an apocalyptic vision of American citizenry in the aftermath of World War II. The 1950s were an ostensibly halcyon decade, but Anderson found the troubling undertones of a shaken country attempting to readjust to normal life following a low. Two years later, he continued down this road by adapting a work from one of America’s most notoriously challenging novelists, and with Inherent Vice, Anderson explores the inverse of The Master: a city full of people readjusting after a high.
All of the characters – from ex-addicts to over-sexed drifters to “renaissance cops” – are burnouts from the sixties navigating a hangover wilderness, as Los Angeles stands upon the precipice of one of the most conflicted eras of American social history. Inherent Vice follows Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a PI attempting to chase so many ghostly cases in a haze of weed-induced bewilderment, a Hunter S. Thompson-esque figure with little zest, and even less awareness of what’s happening in even his most immediate surroundings. What he begins to investigate becomes irrelevant, but it’s something to do with an old squeeze named Shasta (Katherine Waterson). Either way, he encounters various weirdos as he wanders in no particular direction, among them the hippie-hating detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), disillusioned snitch Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) and a coke snorting, sexually fiendish psychiatrist named Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short).
Even though it has a narrator (Joanna Newsom!), Inherent Vice does little to hold itself together. Taking innumerable detours across its monumental running time, it concludes by answering questions it never asked in the first place, and is understandably divisive among even the most seasoned Anderson fans. While it’s arguably less dissonant than The Master, the fact that this is apparently a detective story can infuriate viewers when it eventually decides that it isn’t. I’m not even sure it is anything – apart from batshit crazy – but it does present a world that becomes incredibly immersive and addictive somewhere between that slightly awkward initial viewing and the clarification-seeking replay. It presents the same vision of the seventies as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, but with the fog of memory leading to interpretations and reinterpretations, conveyed by characters who aren’t exactly steeped in their own reality anyway.
While many have decried the lack of unifying narrative in Inherent Vice, it’s not as though that’s anywhere near the movie’s aim. Anderson can be a deadly storyteller, but since the weaving of multiple narratives in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he has limited his focus to singular characters, and in doing so, broadened his scope to exploring even bigger prospects. Finally, he’s become assured enough as a visual stylist and an audience manipulator to freewheel with something this abstract, no longer emoting, but describing aspects of American life, past and present, with jubilant flair. This isn’t the same self-aggrandising approach as Tsai Ming-Liang’s strictly fans-only Stray Dogs, wherein viewer involvement was entirely disregarded in favour of cinematic muscle flexing, because the hilarious and quixotic Inherent Vice is all about entertainment; it just provides this without an emphasis on story. After The Wolf of Wall Street, it’s arguably the longest film of late that requires barely any active involvement, because investing too much attention into piecing things together is a waste of time. Instead, the pleasures are in how the narrative works and in what its strange, strange characters may be getting up to at any given point.