February 12th, 2018

The phantoms of “Phantom Thread”

I used to enjoy watching the Oscars. Long long ago I actually cared about the movies themselves. But after that ended, I enjoyed the fashions.

Now the sanctimonious political posturings of most of Hollywood have become relentless rather than episodic, making it less likely I’ll watch the Oscars at all, although I may still report on the fashions through after-Oscars photos.

But—speaking of fashions and movies—I recently saw a favored “Best Picture” nominee with a fashion theme: “Phantom Thread.” And what a puzzling movie it is, with strange shifts of tone in a film whose tone was already strange to begin with.

I didn’t like it much at all, although I admired some things about it. This puts me in a distinct minority for this highly-praised film. I’m not a film buff, but even I could see the beauty of the movie, especially the sets and period costumes (I’d place the period at around 1954 by the fashions) as well as the music (one of my favorite Brahms waltzes, for example). The script was complex and didn’t pander to the audience, and the acting was great.

Or was it? But more about that later. On the surface, the acting seemed great.

On the surface is the operative phrase for this movie. Of course; it’s about people who deal in the glossy surface of high fashion. But in a movie, we need to care about those people. And I didn’t.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ character “Reynolds Woodcock” is supposed to be a tormented genius. The clothes he designs are very nice, but they’re not incredible for the fashions of those times, although we’re supposed to accept the premise that they are. His art isn’t the sort of thing that would justify the fact that he treats people like shit, although we’re apparently supposed to forgive him because he’s a tormented genius—or to sort-of forgive him, or at least to believe that his paramour loves him in the deepest of ways and he loves her that way too even though it takes him a while [SPOILERS!] to be able to show it.

But when he does finally show it he’s still cold, cold, cold as ice. And she—well, she starts out kind of likeable but at a certain point she becomes so distinctly unlikable you might begin to think that even he doesn’t deserve that sort of punishment.

Why should I care about these two people who some critic called “monsters”? (And that was a critic who liked them—unfortunately, however, I can’t find the link at the moment.) I’m in agreement. And they’re not entertaining, fun monsters. They’re repellent.

In fact, there was no major character in “Phantom Thread” who was likeable, and no minor character either. And although I already said that Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting was very good, towards the end of the movie I began to wonder whether that was true. Even when this guy supposedly melts he seems cold as ice, and so I didn’t believe for a single moment what was supposed to be an important plot point.

It’s not that I need a movie to be sweetness and light. But who wants to see a movie that has no one to root for by its end? And who wants to invest so much time and energy and talent and skill and care (all of which were abundantly evident) in making such a movie?

16 Responses to “The phantoms of “Phantom Thread””

  1. Sam L. Says:

    Hollywood, slipping further into the darkness.

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Sam L.:

    That’s a good way to put it. That movie was very dark, in the spiritual sense.

  3. kevino Says:

    RE: “Long long ago I actually cared about the movies themselves.”
    Long long ago the movies were good.

  4. TommyJay Says:

    This is the writer director Paul Thomas Anderson. He really seems to like characters that are unredeemable, hard, and abrasive. I’ve seen Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood. I kinda wanted to see The Master because of the subject matter, but the previews were so unappealing that I never did.

    If for some reason you want to see films that represent the low points of human nature, but does so with heart, warmth, and humor; then you should check out Alexander Payne’s films. His best is Sideways. His stuff is an acquired taste too, but worth the effort.

  5. Frog Says:

    “But who wants to see a movie that has no one to root for by its end?” asks Neo.
    My take is this is the logical devolution of Hollywood, which began in silent film with obvious and clear, black/white delineations between good and evil, heroes and villians, continued in talkies with the good guy winning (Gary Cooper in High Noon is a culmination, as is the original “3:10 to Yuma” in 1953) after which came a period of anti-heroes who conquered the good guys (e.g. “Breaker Morant”), and now we have movies where all is sordid.
    It is inherent in the nature of the beast. Movies are culminating in their self-destruction via their loss of moral compass.

  6. Artfldgr Says:

    This movie only makes sense as one movie of many out there as happens to much art that seeks to define itself by “difference” itself as if its the same as originality.

    who would want to watch such a movie?

    the kind of people who have watched movies and read stories, and know how they are constructed and so see things like character hate or likability as a “palette” is to a painter. So if likeable be a “color” how do we mix them, what if the movie was all “blue” full of ice cold characters.

    we have accepted this kind of creation as art only for it fills in the gaps skipped over by people who preferred to find the things that people enjoyed… We have long ago attempted to transcend enjoyment as such a bourgeoisie point to “art” as they might say. Its also art that lets one pick winners and losers rather than experience just the best at the top (though it may exploit the best at the top to imbue the mundane with enouch cache. like “girls”)

    but being a brand new Scott Joplin is a lot harder than throwing a tantrum with rubber tape on your nipples, giving the finger and smashing your instrument. the latter being a more equalizing or equal form of art in which the less talented could be more talented if you could be without skills… skill-less talent…

    this was not art to feed upon

    this art left you hungry (often for other art or no art at all)

    like piss christ… or 4′33″… this is art that fills in the squares no one wanted to fill, but others claimed were afraid to fill…

    Without a Jiang Qing i guess the left will set the culture right.

  7. Patrick Says:

    I’ve been waffling on seeing this movie. Good reviews, plus it’s Daniel Day-Lewis’s final movie (he says), and I think he’s probably the greatest actor we’ve had, but on the other hand, it’s directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. His movies mostly lack much of a narrative, dramatic tension, suspense, you know, the sort of things that make a movie fun to watch. I think your comments probably tilt the balance to waiting for the dvd, where I can call it quits if I don’t like it more easily than I would if I went to a theater.

  8. neo-neocon Says:


    I haven’t seen his other movies, but this one does have a dramatic arc and tension. It’s also beautifully photographed, so if you’re going to see it at all, I’d actually suggest a movie theater.

  9. Mike K Says:

    We saw the new Clint Eastwood movie yesterday and it is good. Like the review I read, it starts a little slow with the children.

    The next one I will probably see is about the Entebbe raid, which affected me at the time so much I became an ardent Israeli supporter. It comes out in April, I believe.

  10. Sarah Rolph Says:

    I loved both Boogie Nights and Magnolia. They are quite different.

    Boogie Nights is a strange, interesting film. There is a lot of darkness in it, but there is a sense in which it emphasizes the light. (The love between the characters.) It doesn’t have a traditional story arc but it certainly is a well-told story. Burt Reynolds was nominated for an acting Oscar in this role and I was rooting for him to win. It’s a tender movie, at heart, although on the surface very crass. The performances transcend the subject matter, which I suppose is a sign of good directing.

    Magnolia is big, loud, brash, and full of darkness writ large. Tom Cruise gives a spectacular performance as a very unlikable character. The movie builds and builds and kind of explodes at the end. For a long time I wondered about the title; eventually I decided that it must describe this odd structure, the way the movie just keeps opening up more and more, unfolding like a flower. Strange movie, but I very much enjoyed it.

    So I figured I liked that filmmaker. But when I saw Punch Drunk Love, I did not like it at all, or understand it in the least!

  11. y81 Says:

    I don’t follow this criticism at all. Who do you root for in the Iliad? Or Oedipus? Or Faust? And you might feel sorry for Lear or Othello, but it’s hard to actually like them.

  12. neo-neocon Says:


    Actually, I rooted for Hector. And there were other characters who were sympathetic, too.

    People like (and root for) Cordelia and Desdemona, not Lear and Othello. Actually, I rather liked Lear, too. He was foolish, but very human, particularly at the end.

    That’s exactly what I didn’t feel in “Phantom Threads.” There wasn’t a whole lot of humanity in any of the characters.

  13. zipper Says:

    please tell me you are not mainstreaming the S word on your blog.

  14. neo-neocon Says:


    I’m not.

    Just for special special occasions.

    This movie really repelled me.

  15. Fractal Rabbit Says:

    “But who wants to see a movie that has no one to root for by its end?”

    Most movie critics nowadays. I blame post-modernism.

    Even though I had no love of Roger Ebert’s politics, I respected him as a critic. He was a fairly straightforward guy (for a movie critic) and could review a movie on its merits, judging the movie on what it was trying to be. He could review the high falootin’ stuff and the low, and be fair to the low, if it succeeded at what it was trying for.

    Also, I once emailed him with a question in college for a project. He was very gracious with his answer and actually continued to correspond for a while. Seemed like a decent, honest guy.

  16. Ymar Sakar Says:


    These movies are useful. Hollywood, not so much.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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