In 1969, Southern California was enveloped by a gloomy, suffocating haze when Charles Manson and his followers committed a series of brutal murders in Benedict Canyon. The events left an unending chill over Los Angeles; the innocence of the ‘60s had officially been snuffed out. If Manson and his lunatic fringe represented a shockingly abrupt finale of peace and love, then Inherent Vice might be considered its death rattle—a universe looking to hold onto the last strands of an era that has long since passed.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and based on the novel by author Thomas Pynchon, the film, which premiered Saturday at the New York Film Festival, is set in the fictional LA town of Gordita Beach. The story follows a bumbling stoner P.I. named Larry “Doc” Sportello—played by a hilarious, mutton-chop-wearing Joaquin Phoenix—as he looks into the potential kidnapping of a billionaire real estate tycoon. But this isn’t a straightforward, open-and-shut case. It’s an unending maze. Doc soon finds himself jumping from one potentially unsolvable mystery to the next, all under the heavy fog of pot smoke and other psychotropic substances.
“I saw The Big Sleep and it made me realize, I couldn’t follow any of it, but it didn’t matter because I just wanted to see what was going to happen next,” said Anderson, referencing the film’s sprawling narrative during a post-screening Q+A session.
As Inherent Vice progresses, the story unspools into a labyrinth, introducing a roving cast of increasingly bizarre and erratic characters. There’s Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), the aforementioned real estate mogul; Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a clean-cut Josh Brolin), an LA detective who enjoys beating up suspects; Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), Sportello’s dreamy ex-girlfriend now embroiled in a drug-and-potential-murder plot; and Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a surf-sax legend-turned-LAPD-snitch. The film is bookended by an even larger ensemble—Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, and Michael K. Williams all make brief appearances, as does musician Joanna Newsom, who provides a meditative narration for Doc’s adventures, thus continuing Anderson’s tradition of incorporating indie musicians into his feature projects (see: Aimee Mann in Magnolia, and Jonny Greenwood, who composed There Will Be Blood, The Master, and Vice).
Some of the characters we meet in Inherent Vice prove to be roadblocks to Doc, as he conducts one investigation into the next. Other times, they act as partners, helping to guide him through his recent struggles. But where is Doc’s ultimate destination? What is he looking for? If you’re searching for the type of definitive conclusions that come with more mainstream filmmaking, you’re going to have a difficult time finding them. This is a film you’ll be unraveling long after you leave the theater.
That’s largely thanks to the performances, particularly of Phoenix, who spends most of the film mumbling through conversations and smoking spliffs (irony alert: Phoenix spent the entire NYFF press conference not talking). Doc may come off as—and, frankly, appear to be—aloof, but he isn’t the mere hippie some of the more clean-cut characters like Bigfoot make him out to be. Phoenix’s Doc feels like a precursor to Jeff Bridges’s Dude Lebowski: a California pothead detective who repeatedly gets his ass kicked.
The film ultimately excels in juxtaposing these dark, criminal overtones with both slapstick humor and a palpable sexual energy (see if you can spot all the phallic imagery). One minute, Phoenix is being slapped in the face by a woman or kicked in the stomach by Brolin’s Bigfoot, the other he’s firing a gun at contract killers and searching through police reports. A lesser director would muddle this seemingly random combination of genres, but Anderson does it without letting it spiral out of control. As star Martin Short said on Saturday, “If you’re working with a great director, you feel very, very safe.”
Anderson is of course a great director; he has the filmography to back it up. But where Inherent Vice falls on the list of PTA’s previous work is tough to say, at least after the first screening. Like Anderson’s past films, there’s too much to mine on one viewing. Inherent Vice brings you a sprawling, unobstructed narrative, and then asks you to savor as much as you can. But it’s tough when each scene provides a door into another world: sometimes there are drugs, sometimes there’s sex, sometimes there’s surf rock. All of it feels like a twisted dream—a potential distraction from the depressing post-Manson environment of SoCal.
Doc doesn’t seem entirely sure what is real and what isn’t, either, but he plows along regardless, apathetic (or, perhaps, ignorant) to the images and consequences building around him, looking to catch that last wave of ‘60s splendor before it rolls back in on itself.