Paul Thomas Anderson has said that The Master is his best film, and it’s certainly his most controlled – so tautly controlled, in fact, that is was inevitable his next film would have to slacken a bit, and allow his cinematic style to elasticize and breathe again. Anderson found a canvas for that project in Inherent Vice, his adaptation of the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, and the only adaptation of any Pynchon novel to date. Set in Los Angeles on the cusp of the 1970s, Inherent Vice follows private investigator Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as he tries to track down his missing girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth, played by Katherine Waterston – a journey that radiates out into a series of concentric conspiracies that take in the Los Angeles police force, property market, healthcare industry and class system. Yet while this sprawl marks Anderson’s return to a vast cast – including Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Joanna Newsom, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short – this never really feels like an ensemble film, since Sportello’s quest is just as solipsistic as those of There Will Be Blood and The Master.
However, whereas those two films featured men with enough assurance and charisma to affect some semblance of panoramic control, Doc is debilitated here from the outset, totally divested of the panoptic gaze that is typically associated with Los Angeles crime fiction. Most of the film is shot in tight close-ups that elide context clues about location or situation, while Anderson’s stylised approach gives the impression that he is shooting on old-fashioned sound stages. Moving rapidly in his journey to find Shasta, Doc rarely spends much time in any single space, while Anderson rarely shoots these spaces from a clear enough angle to properly orient us. In general, each space is occupied by a different character in Doc’s investigation, most of whom are either sitting, static or otherwise presented for such a short burst of time that they feel frozen into one posture. Likewise, Doc is sitting, slumping or falling asleep in nearly every scene, meaning that it often takes us a while to see the faces of the other characters (if we ever do), who are generally shot from the waist down, creating an eerie sense of a surveillant world that is just beyond our reach.
As a result, Inherent Vice is in constant movement, but without any real sense of progress, making every space feel as interstitial as the opening shot, sandwiched between houses on Gordita Beach. For the most part, Anderson refrains from exterior shots, or from any expansive sense of space, reducing Los Angeles to an indiscriminate glare whenever windows or doors threaten to open up the film. In fact, Anderson only elaborates space for the sake of elaborating spatial control, reserving his few establishing shots to evoke a world in which panoramic vantage points have been claimed and co-opted by figures of perverse authority. The first of these coincide with Doc’s first point of call – Channelview Estates, a housing development, whose spec plan is pointedly overlaid over a map of Los Angeles as his investigation begins. Far from helping him to map the broader cityscape, however, Channelview is an entirely new precinct, full of recently and artificially constructed sightlines that refute any naturalism that we might want to project onto the film’s spatial awareness.
The establishing shots of Channelview are gradually compounded by wide shots of the LAPD, helmed by Doc’s nemesis Lieutenant Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin, and then by the Port of Los Angeles, where Doc comes across an underground organisation known as the Golden Fang. Almost immediately, the ocean, and the stable spatial horizon that it suggests, is collapsed into the Golden Fang, which comes to stand for this confluence of police, property, corporate surveillance and panoptic control of the Los Angeles sprawl. As in Anderson’s last two films, the ocean here is perpetually askew, on the verge of abstraction, reiterating the film’s obtuse spatial field rather than orienting us in any discernible way. Finally, we reach the Golden Fang’s headquarters, and the widest shots in the film, which are reserved for a criminal enterprise headed by Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, the manager of a “recently privatized mental healthcare facility,” whose grift depends on keeping patients high, and addicted to drugs, to help the Fang’s spatial takeover of the city.
Since Doc is stoned from the moment the film begins, he feels enmeshed in Blatnoyd’s scheme from the very outset, as does the provisional structure of the film itself, which unfolds as a semi-continuous bad trip, full of conspiratorial possibilities that are always on the very fringes of perception. Anderson uses more dissolves than in any of his previous films, making it hard to discern the passage of time, and even harder to follow the story, since there are barely even scenes – just vignettes that remain emergent, never quite cohering into a linear or logical progression. Within that stoner flux, Doc can never really envisage himself as the protagonist of his story, and it doesn’t seem as if the audience are meant to follow along, since events proceed largely by association and intuition, while the film feels as if it was improvised as it was shot. It’s a film that might seem as if it’s made to be seen high, except that Anderson has also saved his audience the trouble of getting high, creating a filmic experience akin to being mildly buzzed – especially in retrospect, when you try to piece the story together but find it all falling through your hands like so much smoke.
Since Inherent Vice is two and a half hours, the difficulty of remembering what has come before makes it particularly disorienting in the second half, as Anderson creates a film that both demands that its audience are stoned, but also prevents them from being stoned by substituting its own narcotic confection. That mirrors the position of Doc, who always seemed too stoned and not stoned enough, searching in vain for just the right buzz to illuminate the conspiracies that are always forming and reforming around him like the Los Angeles coastline that coalesces around the action without ever becoming a stable space in its own right. At one level, this works evocatively to reflect the nascent conspiracies that circulate through so many of Pynchon’s novels, including Inherent Vice, as Anderson unravels a skein of connections so fragile and complex that the overall impression is of creeping dread and inchoate paranoia rather than any clear or cogent narrative throughline.
This combination of lethargy and panic – slacker paranoia – is integral to Pynchon’s style, so its fascinating to see Anderson transplant it to the big screen. Yet as a longtime Pynchon fan, I couldn’t help but feel that Anderson missed the mark here in some ways as well. Pynchon’s writing is very wordy and dense, so Anderson has responded with a film that is often very actorly – most actors only appear once or twice, and most deliver a monologue of some kind – as if to bring his words to life in as contoured and embodied a manner as possible. Yet Pynchon’s wordplay doesn’t always sit well on the big screen and feels quite stilted as dialogue, while it’s also too dense and difficult to follow for long stretches, especially when relayed by Shasta, whose voiceovers insert big slabs of prose, and are so prominent for long stretches that the other characters seem to be speaking sotto voce. For the most part, Shasta reads third-person passages from the book that testify to the inscrutability of her own character, as if Anderson were trying to translate Pynchon into first-person, or channel Pynchon’s own notorious inscrutability to make a film that speaks with his voice – or even a film that feels as if it might conceivably be directed by Pynchon.
This actorly style and stoned vibe also gets in the way of one of the other key aspects of Pynchon’s signature – his sense of humour. So slackened and distended is Inherent Vice that it never really captures the kinetic, manic side of Pynchon, whose penchant for wacky names just feels grating outside of his broader comic register. As Doc sinks into a deeper stupor, the film simply can’t summon up enough energy for Pynchon’s comedy, apart from the occasional Naked Gun styled gag, or National Lampoon moment. These comic respites are few and far between, resulting in a strange mixture of Anderson and Pynchon that doesn’t really reflect the best of either. An adaptation doesn’t have to simply replicate its source, but there was so little of Pynchon here – at least for me – to make Inherent Vice the first real disappointment in Anderson’s career, and a sign that he should return to original screenplays, which he has done with Phantom Thread. After all, he had already created one of the most Pynchonesque films in recent memory with Punch-Drunk Love, making Inherent Vice seem even more remote, by comparison, from Pynchon, and Pynchon’s unique style.