Phantom Thread marks Paul Thomas Anderson’s return with what looks like a conventional period piece with unconventional characters, and a story that could take unexpected turns.
After months of speculation, impatience and even the lack of a title, Focus Features finally released the trailer for Phantom Thread, the new film from writer-director auteur, Paul Thomas Anderson, and it came to mixed reactions. Some circles of the internet reacted with excitement over another collaboration between Anderson and three-time Academy Award winner, Daniel Day-Lewis, who worked together previously on There Will Be Blood. However, others remained skeptical after viewing the trailer, and for good reason: not only did Anderson’s previous film, Inherent Vice, receive divisive reactions from both critics and audiences during awards season in 2014, but the trailer for Phantom Thread leaves a lot to be desired. . .but from a certain aspect, that could lead to a beneficial payoff once the film hits theaters.
When Phantom Thread was first announced in the middle of 2015, all we knew about it was that it starred Daniel Day-Lewis and took place in the world of fashion in the 1950s. But the trailer gives us a bigger glimpse into the film’s story: it begins with his character, Reynolds Woodcock, narrating about how he always sews a personal secret into every coat, dress, and garment he makes over a montage of him carrying out his daily routine as a high-fashion designer in the United Kingdom as elegant yet provocative music plays. The intrigue only grows as a waitress named Alma (played by Vicky Krieps) catches his eye at a restaurant he visits; so much so, that he asks her to have dinner with him, which she agrees to after some hesitation. From there, the trailer shows Alma becoming a muse for Reynolds’ work as well as his mistress, and implies a turn for the dramatic through images of Reynolds looking voyeuristically through the peephole of a door, a car speeding down a long road, and arguments Alma and Reynolds have as their relationship erodes, to name a few. All of this happens while the strings of Jonny Greenwood’s score grow more and more unsettling with every pluck.
On the surface of its trailer, Phantom Thread does look like another typical period drama. The costume and set design are lavish and on another level of authenticity, the story centers around a romance, and its main selling point is a performance from arguably the greatest living actor of our time, and is in this case, apparently his last (although it is worth mentioning he said that after the release of Gangs of New York in 2002, but that’s another topic for another day). It also implies all the conventions of any film from Paul Thomas Anderson: a story with emotional stakes driven by complex but flawed characters, immaculate attention to detail of the film’s time period, and a camera that never stops moving unless on a close-up. It’s worth noting that Anderson himself is his own director of photography this time around; such a task is daunting on paper, but it’s exciting to see a director perform dual roles on his own film set, because it’s evidence of his passion for the material.
But the primary reason why I have more optimism about Phantom Thread as a movie is because Anderson has been known to take his films on surprising turns that throw the expectations of audiences onto their head; the ending of Boogie Nights changed the way people listen to Rick Springfield, the climax of Magnolia was something nobody saw coming, and I still remember how I reacted to the revelation toward the end of There Will Be Blood. Meanwhile, so much of The Master was from the perspective of its PTSD-stricken lead character, it can be argued that at certain points it became hard to tell what scenes were real and what weren’t. Plus, the trailer for Phantom Thread sells a lot of mystery about Day-Lewis’s character: why isn’t he married, why does he feel cursed, and what is it that drives him into almost-paranoid obsession? There’s a plethora of directions that this story could take, and even after the good but underwhelming Inherent Vice, I have faith that Paul Thomas Anderson will come back with something that’ll leave everyone speechless.
All this being said, after pretty much ten months of not even a production still, the possibility still remains that Phantom Thread could end up getting rushed into its release on Christmas Day this year just so Focus Features has a perennial contender for this year’s awards season, and that is my biggest worry. It’s not uncommon, either: Paramount put Martin Scorsese’s passion project Silence through this exact scenario last year with little to no marketing or advertising, and it resulted in great reviews, but poor box office and only one Oscar nomination. I would hope that Focus Features wouldn’t do that to one of the most established auteurs in filmmaking right now as an independent film distributor, but all I can suggest to how they handle Phantom Thread is Alma’s final quote from the trailer: “Whatever you do, do it carefully.”