Paul Thomas Anderson's work is littered with men cursed by purpose and entangled by real or imagined muses.
The alignment of Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis a decade ago in neo-Western (of sorts) There Will Be Blood tackled the foundational greed of American civilisation, creating an enduring powerhouse piece of art and arguably the best male leading performance so far this century.
Drink your milkshake
Let’s begin with THAT performance in There Will Be Blood which garnered Day-Lewis' second of three Oscars. He says it sprang like a “golden sapling out of [Anderson's] mad beautiful head”. His method is less about adorning the garbs of a character (although he is very particular about his wardrobe) or learning the lines; it’s a calculated immersion.
According to ShortList, Anderson gave Day-Lewis a year to prepare for the role of Daniel Plainview. The actor spent time with late 19th century recordings and the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Anderson claims he viewed every evening before filming started to develop the perfect timbre for an "oil man" of that time.
There’s something so engrossing about the commitment to the physicality of the character. Plainview walks like a man battered by an unforgiving landscape and the hard graft of splitting and shifting stone. Cast your mind back to the opening of the film – that's one whole year of preparation to be in almost total silence for the opening 15 minutes.
Simmering rage is etched in his face like a landscape on a topographical map. His pronounced forehead vein pulsates like the oil coursing through the ripening Texas landscapes. Day-Lewis is ferocious, yet tempered by the deftly calm, commanding but diminutive presence of Dillon Freasier’s HW, his adopted son and partner.
HW is the gateway into Plainview's soul, concealed as it is, in a hostile exterior of gristle, sinew and rickety bones – a vessel for a voice that sounds like gnashing rocks and eyes with laser penetration. HW is his reason for being a part of the world, his small amount of civility and negotiation a result of their deep connection.
After HW's accident, the light within Plainview is extinguished, and he goes about severing all human connections. In the opening silence, Plainview is burdened to care for a young boy, who becomes his muse. HW drags him out of a desolate lonely pursuit to become an oil titan.
At first look, Daniel Plainview, the gruff, manipulative and rigid "oil man", would have nothing in common with delicate and fastidious fashionista Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread. Speaking to W Magazine, Day-Lewis said he and Anderson imagined Woodcock as being defined by living with a “curse” or a “malady”.
“The responsibility of a creative life, which is both a curse and a blessing. You can never separate them until the day you die. It’s the thing that feeds you and eats away at you; gives you life and is killing you at the same time.”
Woodcock is a collection of obsessive tendencies, working to craft his inspiration in fabric; he has a routine that creates the conditions for his genius. However, he cannot help but be drawn to Vicky Krieps’ Alma, a new muse and the focus of Phantom Thread. She’s a perfectly imperfect model to inspire and adorn his creations.
Krieps’ organic style makes her a dazzling dance partner for Day-Lewis. You marvel at his control as Reynolds, even in the minor manipulations and contortions of his facial gestures tempering emotions, where Krieps' raw emotion blooms and registers her mood in her flush face.
The delightful friction in this deviant love story is that both Woodcock and Alma realise they’re incompatible, but they are unwilling to sever the connection.
The Master of the muse
Anderson relishes the tension in this discord and it registers throughout his body of work. In the adaptation of the Thomas Pyncheon novel Inherent Vice, Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is enlisted by his former squeeze, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), to investigate the whereabouts of Micky Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Doc is cursed by a protective impulse for Shasta. Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) narrates and after repeat viewings, I’m certain she’s a fabrication of Doc’s. Sortilège is an inner voice, a character by Doc to shield him from his impulses to protect Shasta at all costs.
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an unlikely muse in The Master. Quell is obsessed – to the point of self-harm – with being able to escape psychological wounds of war and the cotton wool covered civility of post-war society. When he finally encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he becomes a living case study. Dodd sees Quell as the perfect subject, like a ferocious and wild horse that needs to be broken. Hoffman is intoxicated with that malady; individuals like Quell are the ripest saps to be plucked.
Tom Cruise as Frank TJ Mackey is the central thrusting performance in Magnolia, exhibiting the deepest psychological scars. This seductive self-help guru’s muse is his father, Earl Partridge (played by the terrific Jason Robards). Earl’s abandonment and mistreatment of Frank’s mother has inspired the conjuring of this hyper masculine, phallic obsessed, detachment machine, keeping emotions well in hand until their final confrontation.
Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is lost in Punch Drunk Love; in his attempts to class up his appearance, in his obsessions to realise that scheme to give him the edge, and cursed with a brood of seven ball-busting sisters that badger him until his defences are depleted. His muses are two sides of a coin. Firstly, Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), his guiding light and salvation from the echo chamber of his family, and secondly, Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a furniture salesman cum amateur extortionist and Barry’s main agitator.
Finally, when porn veteran Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) catches his first glimpses of Eddie Adams/Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) in Boogie Nights, there’s an ecstasy and illumination in his gaze. Here’s the embodiment of his ambition; a charismatic, physical specimen – as well as a behemoth member. Horner stokes the fires of Dirk’s egomania, and that blaze becomes an uncontrollable wildfire that leads to the demise of Dirk’s career and their relationship.
The collaborations between Anderson and Day-Lewis embrace this grand tension with a harrowing focus. Does the Oscar gold a decade ago signal a sign of what’s to come? One thing’s for sure, according to Day-Lewis, he’s decided this second collaboration with Anderson will be his last.
"Before making the film, I didn’t know I was going to stop acting. I do know that Paul and I laughed a lot before we made the movie. And then we stopped laughing because we were both overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. That took us by surprise: We didn’t realise what we had given birth to. It was hard to live with. And still is.”
Phantom Thread is now showing in cinemas.