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Phantom Thread Film Review: Power Mind Games

Two people dance with balloons on the floor in the film Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is a completely intoxicating watch that captures a complex relationship power dynamic.

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Genre: Drama, Romance
Run Time: 130′
Release Date: December 25, 2017
Where to watch: On digital & VOD

It’s rare to find a film that can combine the thriller and romance genres as beautifully as Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 movie Phantom Thread. Utilizing a trio of actors with some of the strongest on-screen chemistry I have ever witnessed, Thomas Anderson’s film ignites a slow burn that ends in a monstrous eruption by the time the credits roll.

Phantom Thread opens on an infamous 1950s couture designer, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis, of There Will Be Blood). He runs his London fashion house with his straitlaced sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, of Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris), designing gowns for starlets, socialites and even royalty. The Woodcock House is so successful because it is run under strict guidelines which are never blatantly stated, but unanimously understood by all. The workshop, and Reynolds’s life, are akin to a symphony, every movement feels perfectly rehearsed yet is executed with an impossible effortlessness. 

Renyolds’s art always comes first, leaving his personal life in a quite dismal state. When we meet Reynolds, his current relationship is unraveling as his partner cannot understand the order of his priorities in life. As that connection comes to a conclusion, Reynolds goes out to his home in the countryside where he meets a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps, of Corsage). She is young, seemingly carefree and raw. Reynolds immediately becomes infatuated with the strong-willed, beautiful Alma and takes her in as his newest lover and, more importantly, muse. 

While together, Reynolds expects Alma to conform to the lifestyle he has so meticulously built in order for his work to thrive. Alma adores Reynolds and has the utmost respect for his work but refuses to melt into his world and leave her sense of self behind. Phantom Thread chronicles the power struggle that ensues in their relationship as both parties refuse to concede to one another. 

Phantom Thread: Trailer (Focus Features)

Phantom Thread is a calculated character study, perfectly punctuated by the central relationship between Reynolds and Alma. The scenes between the two of them alter in tone, one minute playing like a masterful chess game and the next a brutal boxing match. At times their words are carefully chosen, intended to inflict the maximum degree of damage they can. Other times they suffer from uncontrollable expressions of the disappointment and hurt they have caused one another. Their interactions are so volatile you truly never know what will happen next.   

This film is Vicky Krieps’s debut on screen performance and Daniel Day-Lewis’s last. The poetry of this moment in both of their careers and how they coincide with one another is perhaps what makes the movie feel so alive, so lived in and so believable. When we meet Reynolds, he has nothing to prove to anybody. He continues to be at the height of his career, he can have any woman he so desires and he just happens to meet Alma. Alma’s life, on the other hand, seemingly did not start until she met Reynolds. He adorns her in these one-of-a-kind dresses, the type of gowns she never dreamed she’d ever even get to see in person, and makes her the central part of his art. She has found her life’s purpose in being his muse and she will do anything to ensure that she continues to live what she believes is her destiny. But at the same time, she will not allow him to walk all over her, stopping her spirit into oblivion.  

You could never tell this was Krieps’s first major part, with the way she inhabits the complexities of Alma. She is able to portray the role of a small countryside waitress one second and then the wife of a famous fashion designer the next with the ease of a far more seasoned actress. She acts opposite Day-Lewis with a fearlessness that makes her the perfect Alma. Alma does not care how things were run or the way Reynolds’s lovers were treated before she comes into the Woodcock house. She has a dauntlessness and a stubbornness that proves she is the singular match for Reynolds. She is the only one, outside of Cyril, who has ever been able to match Reynolds in wits and knows how to get him where it really hurts. She pushes him to see how far he’ll bend, forcing him to ditch his well-crafted image and show her who he really is. 

Day-Lewis’s final role served as the most perfect and poetic farewell to acting he could have given. Opposite an actress at the beginning of her career, Day-Lewis masterfully guides the film and eventually allows Krieps to shine and take it over completely as Alma. His ability to inhibit a character that feels so lived in as Reynolds is unmatched. There is no one else as celebrated as him who can disappear so seamlessly into a role making the audience lose sight of who is behind the character in the story quite like him. 

A man adjusts a woman's dress as he is making it, and they both stand in front of a mirror, in the film Phantom Thread
Phantom Thread (Focus Features)

In Phantom Thread, Thomas Anderson displays his unique ability to create incredibly nuanced characters and relationships in a gorgeous and enticing cinematic effort. This film really shows his capabilities to play with pacing, plot and mise-en-scène in a way that both adheres to his incredibly specific style of filmmaking and differs from it. This is the film that sticks out the most in his filmography as it differs from his signature brash characters and intense, graphic lighting. It is a far more sensitive and understated effort, allowing the leads to take center stage in a refined manner. It also demonstrates his ability to tell a story on his own terms in a manner that you wouldn’t typically expect from such a distinctive director. 

Phantom Thread is a beautifully crafted, incredibly intentional film that doesn’t waste a single frame. The performances from Krieps and Day-Lewis will make you feel like you are watching a ceremonious dance performed by two highly seasoned veterans of the arts. It’s playful and powerful and above all else, a completely intoxicating watch. 

Get it on Apple TV

Phantom Thread is now available to watch on digital and on demand. Read our ranking of all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies!

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