Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
By Roderick Heath
Thomas Pynchon has long been considered an unfilmable author. The celebrity-averse writer’s absurdist, metastasizing narratives and quintessentially postmodern, metafictional conceits, wrap the reader in material wrought from a heated blend of cultural detritus. Pulp novels, B-movies, history books, philosophy volumes, underground comedy skits, comic books, urban legends, paranoid nightmares—anything that gives off a strange and lively psychic radioactivity helps build his byzantine worldview and heady conceptual universes. Such tales usually prove too dense, too eccentric to wrangle within the acceptable demarcations of a feature film. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, unafraid of a challenge.
Anderson’s only other proper novel adaptation was his revision of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! for There Will Be Blood (2007), a radical variation on a theme that allowed him free space to construct his own vision. With Inherent Vice, Anderson faced a more difficult task, not the least of which is satisfying Pynchon’s cult, though the novel was greeted as one of Pynchon’s less complex and most accessible works, if also one of his less powerful. The invocation of the hectic, distrustful, whirlwind energy of hippie-era SoCal offered Anderson a landscape to lose himself in and another stage of modern American history to infiltrate and anatomise. The decline and decay of the 1960s counterculture fits between the ’50s imperial flimflam of The Master (2012) and the devolved hedonism of the ’70s in Boogie Nights (1997). But Inherent Vice allows Anderson to go one better, because Pynchon’s tale is a pop cultural core sample that presents a host of subterranean connections between modes of Americana.
Rather than return to the balletic ebullience of Boogie Nights or channel the frenetic pop-art accent of much ’60s cinema, Anderson takes a different tack, adopting his hero Larry “Doc” Sportello’s frazzled, spacey, mesmeric rhythm of perception, enforced by his steady diet of strong weed, as the aesthetic key. Anderson breaks up the world not into pop fantasias but into free-floating surveys that occasionally resolve in startling moments of revelation and visions of clarity. Doc is essentially a professional hippie, but he’s also a licenced private eye who got into the business tracking down criminals who skipped out on their bail and found himself adept enough at it to make a tolerable living while living in a hash haze. One day, his ex-girlfriend, would-be actress and former surfer chick Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), turns up at his beachfront shack looking urbane and trendy. She appeals for Doc’s aid with a moral conundrum on the verge of becoming a dangerous situation. Shasta is the kept woman of wealthy property developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and is worried Mickey’s wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her personal trainer/boyfriend are plotting to shanghai Mickey into a funny farm and annex his fortune. Shasta wants Doc to try to head off the plot before she is forced to make an unpleasant choice between survival and collusion.
Through some eerie conjunction of unlucky stars, Doc quickly finds himself embroiled in other cases that all seem connected by mysterious threads and cross-currents of coincidence and conspiracy in the covert Los Angeles social war. Black power tough Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) hires Doc to seek out a prison friend of his, Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who’s a member of the White Power motorcycle club Wolfmann uses as bodyguards, to help get weapons for the revolution. When Doc is knocked unconscious whilst visiting a brothel on the fringes of LA, he awakens in a car park next to Charlock’s corpse and Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with a mass of coppers itching to pin the murder on him. Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) hires Doc because she was married to one of Shasta’s friends, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a surf rock saxophonist who supposedly overdosed, to investigate rumours Coy isn’t as dead as he’s supposed to be. Bigfoot, Doc’s police persecutor/contact, has personal reasons to be interested in one of Charlock’s fellow Nazi thugs, Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine), who works as muscle for professional assassin Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie) and may have facilitated Mickey’s disappearance for various colluding forces. Doc has found a new part-time squeeze in Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), uptight deputy D.A. by day and pot-smoking cool cat by night, though that relationship isn’t going far even before Penny hands him over to the FBI, which might have played a part in Mickey’s disappearance. One of the prostitutes from the brothel, Jade (Hong Chau), alerts Doc to the danger of the Golden Fang, the name of a mysterious schooner often seen off the coast. Or it might also be a drug cartel dug as deep as a tick into the fabric of the new, groovy American life. Or it might just be the tax dodge of a bunch of dentists. Or it might be…
The hilariously convoluted plot does in the end make a kind of sense, the mimicry of forms and protocols from decades’ worth of private eye fiction ingeniously sarcastic. A femme fatale breezing in and out of reality like a conjured dream calling the hero into the netherworld. Down these mean streets stumbles a man who is himself not mean. Dense and mysterious connections between the seedy back alley and the mansion on the hill. A plethora of come-ons from exotic lovelies and sneak-peeks into the sordid delights of fame and power. Friendly antagonism with the respectable forces of law and order. A double-cross and a fight for survival. A host of oddball foes and friends, alliances and chance encounters. The P.I. genre was always popular because it offered the chance of ennobling justice pursued by nonofficial forces, gratifying the courage of the everyday rather than the occupation of the state. On another level, the story is mere mass distraction, a random free-for-all of worldly nonsense that impedes Doc’s ability (and desire) to recognise crucial facts, immediate dangers, and the reality of the relationships that define his life.
Doc is no Mike Hammer, but he isn’t clueless either, constantly revealing a streak of native wiliness and survival instinct that seems to have been honed rather than dulled by his druggy lifestyle. His perpetually fazed state usually synchronises functionally with the surreal barrage of events he’s faced with. Indeed, as presented, the landscape Doc inhabits might only be tolerable whilst stoned and make sense only when filtered with the specific mix of detachment and the preternatural powers of perception imbued by heavy cannabis input. His tale is narrated by his astrologer and soothsayer friend Sortilege (played, in a genius stroke of casting, by folk singer Joanna Newsom), whose drawling, blowsy voice weaves soft as smoke through the tale, matching Anderson’s recurring use of wide master shots gently prodded toward focal points in creating a sense of blasé estrangement. Inherent Vice elides ramming home points about the decline of the counterculture but does so through inferences that are bitterly amusing, particularly in the inevitable corruption of the drug scene, which is indeed the deepest, truest satiric target and essential theme of Inherent Vice, formulating too much of then-modern American life as “something to be run away from,” but also depicting the very thing you want to flee ready to meet you on the far side of the rabbit hole.
Rather than subdivide the realities presented through Doc’s fuzzy-headed narrative, the film keeps them all connected literally or spiritually in a roundelay of perversity. This refrain is perfectly in keeping with Anderson’s fascination with the manifold and defining ways of life in a modern western state, refusing the simple division of the ’60s landscape into one of squares and longhairs—a division that suited both camps—and contemplating the woozy, iniquitous nature behind much of the “liberation.” Pynchon’s tale, readily understood by Anderson, comprehends the foul meeting place of haute capitalism and hapless counterculture in the perfect enterprise—illegal drug retail. The Golden Fang, or whatever it is, deals out both addiction and redemption, financing rehabilitation facilities where junkies can dry out, tune back in, and start their journey back toward the point where they want to get high, in perfect tune with the circadian rhythms of the nation.
The doppelganger aspect of this is drawn out by Doc’s love-hate relationship with Bigfoot, a policeman who wants to be Joe Friday and also wants to be a media star, and is constantly caught short of his many all-American ambitions. He torments Doc, going so far as to bash and kick him when he catches him trying to speak to Sloane Wolfmann and taunting him with the suggestion that Shasta might be dead, but then admitting she’s only missing. But Bigfoot also seems to desperately rely on Doc in some fashion as his alter ego, his smothered conscience or unconscious, his drop-out double, calling him up in the middle of the night essentially to hear the voice of someone he doesn’t owe anything to. Ironically, the first glimpse of Bigfoot comes when he, in his half-assed acting career, plays a hippie with a giant fake afro flogging Wolfmann’s tacky new real estate (“…and best of all, a view of the Dominguez Flood Control Channel that can best be described in two words—right on!”). As if in obedience to the mysterious cue in the coincidence, Doc is already making himself over by sporting an afro.
Doc’s first stop on his mission is the brothel, lazily disguised as a massage parlour, set up in a demountable on the fringes of Wolfmann’s latest crime against the landscape overlooking LA, building an unbearable future through which a mysterious army of men scuttle and dive to the dirt avoiding Doc’s gaze. Within, Doc encounters Jade, who starts casually making out with coworker Bambi, ignoring Doc’s status as private eye. A hidden assailant clops him on the head with a baseball bat, and he awakens sprawled on the dust of the estate next to Charlock’s dead body, amidst fluttering, red plastic flags and a row of cops aiming guns at him. All this is scored sublimely by Lex Baxter’s “Simba,” one of the composer’s popular “exotica” recordings that evoke communing with the wild and tribal via the hi-fi in plastic suburbia. Anderson’s ear for music to pervade his work is just as clever and telling elsewhere, particularly in the use of German psychedelic band Can’s throbbing, percussive, alien music rather than the sound of a more familiar band from a nearby scene, like The Doors, Love, or Jefferson Airplane.
Inherent Vice shudders with rattled nerves. Doc’s segue into searching for Coy Harlingen evokes the most fervently paranoid side of the era’s fantasies, probably the most famous of which is the “Paul’s dead” rumour communicated through signs and symbols permeating the Beatles’ output that Paul McCartney, despite all signs to the contrary, was actually dead and had been replaced by a lookalike. Funny thing is, Coy really does turn out to be alive, having faked his death to end his destructive relationship with Hope. Coy took an offer from a morals crusade group that wanted him as an agent to infiltrate the hippie scene, but has been forced onto a treadmill of fake identities and ridiculous assignments, like pretending to be a hippie scum protestor at a Nixon speech. Of course, the morals crusade is actually the Golden Fang’s public face, and Coy is trapped with no way back to his personal reality.
Doc’s first meeting with Coy comes at a classic noir location, a fog-shrouded pier, perfect for swapping mythologies of the night and anguished personal lessons, for ghost ships to cruise the harbour, for men returning from the dead and melting back into the murk. Later, Doc has to track Coy down to where he’s currently operating undercover: Coy has slotted himself back into a band he used to play in—they’re too drug-addled to recognise him—for the sake of an investigation, living in a record exec’s rented house that’s become a kind of commune for bohemian brethren who divvy up pizzas in a burlesque of Last Supper art. Coy has been nominated as hipster Jesus, seeking his return to life after his sacrifice. Anderson tips his hat most explicitly to long-time influence Robert Altman here, who used the same joke in MASH (1970). The atmosphere and essential conceit of Inherent Vice recalls Altman’s similar defloration of the Marlowe myth in his flaky take on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1974), whilst the visual language often recalls early ’70s Altman’s love of wide shots and slow zooms.
It would be easy to overstate the Altman imprint on the film, however, as Anderson seems to have other models equally in mind. Anderson fashions the film in complete opposition to the hallucinatory, chiaroscuro approach to the Californian alternative scene Oliver Stone wrought so well in The Doors (1991), though that style would have seemed apt for adapting Pynchon’s novel. Pynchon’s writing has long shared the antic, near-cartoonish quality that was popular in much ’60s culture, sharing that quality in common with figures like MAD Magazine artist Mort Drucker, the early films of Richard Lester, and Pynchon’s fellow black-comedy writer Terry Southern, who penned the novel Candy and cowrote Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Easy Rider (1969). Anderson tweaks Bigfoot in a fashion that recalls Easy Rider’s tragic character George Hanson, portrait of trapped America, a man so busy playing parts demanded of him that he doesn’t quite know who he is anymore.
Anderson generally takes his cues from a different strand of moviemaking from the period, particularly Arthur Penn, whose Alice’s Restaurant (1969) was the first post-counterculture film that came out when the movement was cresting, and Penn’s revisionist take on the private eye flick in the light of shifting modern mores, Night Moves (1975), as well as Lester’s radical turnabout Petulia (1968). The inner thesis of the film also invokes the famous “high and beautiful wave” passage of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Wim Wenders’ early works also feel like powerful influences on the film’s serious substrata, particularly his American debuts Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984). The former film walked the detective drama through reverent genre pastiche, but also adopted a similarly opiated, abstracted sense of time and sad learning as well, studying the distance between the odd comfort found in the terse, distorted world created on page and the actual spectacle of a deeply corrupt world, and the latter’s intimate, emotionally gnarled anatomisation of formerly happy, wayfaring lovers wrecked on the shoals of an unforgiving land. Anderson, whose jesting, yet penetrating vantage on his native land has defined his work to date, seems to want to adopt the same stranger’s-eye view. And indeed, that suits Doc’s status as self-imposed exile in his own land.
Doc is presented as a classic kind of comic character on the surface, the guy who stumbles blithely through danger, a figure that threads through the history of movie comedy from Harold Lloyd to Inspector Clouseau and Frank Drebin, with just a little of Groucho Marx’s shyster ingenuity, and, of course, his name pays tribute to Groucho’s progeny Bugs Bunny. But Anderson, via Phoenix’s dextrous performing, confirms there’s a real person buried under the shaggy hair and patchouli cloud, a man trying to fly over petty abuses and major heartbreaks inflicted by the ways of the world, from losing Shasta to a rich man to getting knocked over by cops like schoolyard bullies. Late in the film, when Doc converses with smooth, cold-blooded lawyer Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), who may be connected to the Golden Fang and have arranged the murder of his wayward daughter’s lover, Doc meets Fenway’s sneering depreciation of his worth with, “Well I might not be as well connected, and for sure not as much into revenge as you folks are, but if you jive with me, my man—’ and makes a clicking sound as if cocking a gun. Phoenix expertly twists this line, eyes bugging out like Jack Elam after a bender, so that it comes out as both punch line and exact character signature.
Inherent Vice neglects Anderson’s theme of master-pupil relationships, perhaps because The Master signalled a natural end to them, all the better to concentrate on his twinned rivals and doppelgangers, another constant refrain in his work. Equally, Inherent Vice’s official status as comedy, however uneasy, suddenly gives new dimension to the farcical impulses throughout his films, like There Will Be Blood’s invocations of Tom and Jerry, Coyote and Roadrunner, and the Three Stooges. Turning Coy into hippie Jesus readily evokes the many profane temples constructed by Anderson’s characters in their searchings, his pilgrims in a land without holy places, and evokes the purest side of the counterculture in its search for things worth honouring distinct from the interests of commerce and state. Woven throughout all the dope and derring-do is a meditation on Doc and Shasta’s relationship, tethered to the drama overtly and spiritually. A flashback depicts the couple in their happiest moment, when, strung out during a weed famine, they consulted Sortilege who made them try a Ouija board; the board immediately gave them a street number to what seemed to be a connection, only to belong to an empty lot. Doc heads to the same spot on an impulse and finds an oddball modernist building now in the space. Moreover, the building proves to house the Golden Fang, or at least a Golden Fang, a collective of dentists headed by depraved Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short, bless him) who has a massive stash of heroin under his desk he shares happily with Doc before dashing off for a quickie with his vinyl-clad secretary Xandra (Elaine Tan). Then Fenway’s professionally maladjusted daughter Japonica (Sasha Pieterse) turns up, having just escaped from the institution her father exiled her to after Doc tracked her down on an earlier case, to resume her corrupt ways with boyfriend Blatnoyd. Somehow Doc finishes up in a car with this twisted duo and his pal and protégé Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn), stopped by cops who have been told, post-Manson family, to look out for cults. But the invisible hand of some defender stops them all getting busted. Blatnoyd turns up dead shortly thereafter, having fallen off a trampoline and then been mauled on the neck; Doc suggests to Bigfoot that he investigate to see if Blatnoyd was killed with actual golden fangs.
The scenes with Blatnoyd mark the most overtly rompish passage in the film, whilst the subplot of the boat that also bears the name of the Golden Fang, upon which Doc suspects Wolfmann, Shasta, or both may have been borne across the seas, provides a host of connections with pulp fiction, particularly the otherworldly junk bearing human cargo in Albert Zugsmith’s proto-psychedelic epic Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962). The voyaging motif that popped up throughout The Master returns here, postcards from far off places touched with hints of enigmatic benediction and longing. Doc’s marine lawyer pal Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro, in a marvellously dry performance) clues Doc in on the Golden Fang’s mysterious past, including a sojourn into the Bermuda Triangle when owned by once-blacklisted, now anti-communist movie star Burke Stodger (Jack Kelly). Meanwhile, Sauncho happily gives advice with equanimity to Doc and Bigfoot, because Doc never pays him and, well, he’s a marine lawyer. Doc eventually does track down Mickey, finding him installed in a Golden Fang front, a rehab facility, where Coy is also installed on one of his missions. Mickey is a wreck painful to behold, mumbling through the haze of detox about his epiphany that his business depredations were evil, a portrait of cynic turned loopy, drug-fuelled idealist now being forcibly transformed back into his previous condition because too many people, from his wife to the U.S. government, require it. Anderson abruptly and disorientingly has Doc’s seemingly all-consuming investigation fold in upon itself in tragicomic diminuendo, as Mickey returns to business and Shasta suddenly appears again as she did at the beginning, fetching beer and questioning Doc about his requirements in women.
Here, crucially, the underlying tone of something darker, rawer, in Anderson’s enquiry leaps to the fore, hinted at throughout the early scenes with a cheeky sensibility, as he notes that the sexual liberation surveyed in the LA scene is too often rather an elaborate form of prostitution, particularly around Wolfmann’s house, where Anderson places his camera at Doc’s sitting eye line, so both sexy housemaid Luz (Yvette Yates) and Sloane’s trainer and lover Riggs (Andrew Simpson) are both objectivised as bodies. Upon her return to Doc, Shasta strips off and lays herself across his lap, taunting him with a long story of being reduced to Wolfmann’s concubine, brought in as if she ought to be on a leash in secret dens where plutocrats meet and shared around as common property. Shasta’s long monologue, delivered in a slurred testimony replete with disquieting, simultaneous urges to be chastised and purified but also have stirred masochistic, anti-human impulses sated, drives Doc to spank her and fuck her in a spasm of powerful anger and desire.
This astounding vignette drives the film into radically different territory, Waterston’s quake-inducing performance evoking Nastassja Kinski’s haunted reverie in Paris, Texas and Last Tango in Paris (1972) in grazing the edges of sexuality’s intense, troubling ambivalence, and also a hint of Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007), which similarly explored the problems of love interwoven with hate through a prism of pulp fiction. The notion that too much of human life is, under all the flashy surfaces and propaganda, a case of people seeking power over others and the strange, contorted ways the dominated react proves a secret thesis of Inherent Vice, and the throughline of the entire affair, Doc’s attempt to bury and forget the plain fact that his girlfriend left him for a rich man and now comes back to the better man only to test him, is simplicity itself. But, of course, the encounter concludes with Shasta’s reminder that “This doesn’t mean we’re getting back together.”
Shasta’s mysterious return begs as many questions as it answers, but it’s Coy who then haunts Doc; just as Bigfoot is Doc’s doppelganger, Coy is Shasta’s, another free spirit similarly erased from reality by the forces of iniquity. This drives Doc to foolishly brave the lair of the one definite (and perhaps, in the end, only) spider in the Golden Fang tree, Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie), who seems to have killed Bigfoot’s partner and is perfectly willing to get rid of Doc’s pestering presence by having Puck take him captive and arrange his death by forced overdose. Doc battles for his life with the kind of streetwise skill that’s always been lurking under his ridiculous exterior. The sense of threat Anderson has managed to infuse amidst all of these antics pay in off in a sudden burst of real and thrilling violence—except Doc, in his peerless fashion, cries out, “Did I hit you?” moments after unloading a load of bullets into a man’s face. This sequence would have made an old-school noir filmmaker proud, proving Anderson’s gift with nuts-and-bolts cinema is still tuned whilst still defiantly maintaining his chosen style, via an oblique framing of captive Doc and Puck through a window.
Inherent Vice ultimately belongs in a genre that is infamously difficult to pull off and even harder to sell: profound farce, a vision of hapless humans entrapped by their own unruly impulses within a society defined by the same impulses, shot through an ironic, but still correct sense of the unity of opposites. Even in Bigfoot’s final, near-fatal betrayal of Doc we find the opposite, a gesture of desperation and hunt for comradeship that the cop can’t quite acknowledge. Inherent Vice is a thoroughly immersed period piece, but sustains a peculiar blend of the hazily remembered with the immediate: Anderson knows that Doc’s desire to excise himself from the pains of living in the world is an ancient and immediate ambition. Anderson cuts him a little more slack than Pynchon. Where Boogie Nights wrapped up with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as it elegy to happy endings after nightmares, Anderson leaves off with Doc and Shasta adrift on the highway, Doc keeping one suspicious eye on trailing headlights, knowing evil is always lurking, but feeling that a puce knight like him stands a chance of fighting it off.