Out of all the films I saw in 2014, Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, is the trickiest to boil down. When watching the picture in theaters back in December, by midway through the movie it appeared that half the audience had left the auditorium. Paul Thomas Anderson is no stranger in creating decisive films; back in 2012, I similarly remember viewers grumbling after seeing The Master. Yet Inherent Vice is arguably Anderson’s most polarizing yet, creating a divide between the director’s fans and his diehards.
As someone who considers himself in the latter category, I found Inherent Vice to be a thrilling journey, if one that requires viewers to be attentive as well as have previous knowledge of Thomas Pynchon’s source material. Anderson’s direction has changed since Hard Eight, from the Scorsese/Altman worship of Boogie Nights and Magnolia to the more distinct, brutally cold feel of There Will Be Blood and The Master. Inherent Vice continues Anderson’s use of dreamy surrealism though its bizarre humor and its 70s setting also recalls the party-heavy vibe of Boogie Nights. But Inherent Vice is a completely unique film; while its closest companion is the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski, sharing a hippie protagonist and a Ray Chandler-esque story, Inherent Vice is completely different from that picture and is unlike any other movie I’ve seen before.
Set on the fringe between the 60s and 70s in Los Angeles, Inherent Vice focuses on Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private detective who wishes nothing more than to spend time at home and smoke a joint. But after his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) asks him to locate her boyfriend Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts), a real estate developer, Doc finds himself wrapped in conspiracy after conspiracy that involves the Aryan brotherhood, a missing saxophonist, and a menacing organization that may or may not be a group of dentists trying to evade the tax code, all while establishing an uneasy alliance with stern cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), whose hatred of hippies is often a problem for Doc.
With its dense plot, Inherent Vice becomes an increasingly difficult movie to crack so much so that even missing one single detail can derail your understanding of the story. Yet Anderson’s rich ensemble of characters and layering of mysteries makes Vice thoroughly enjoyable that even when I was lost in the film’s overarching storyline I had a great appreciation of what the movie was doing. Mish-mashing Zucker-esque slapstick gags with chilling violence, Inherent Vice often interchanges its tone from humor to horror, representing the era’s growing counter-culture as well as the uneasiness brought by figures such as Charlie Manson. Doc acts as a figurehead for the viewers as a man lost in a sea of hippie-idealism and brutal reality. Though Joanna Newsome’s narration provides some outlook for Vice, Doc’s journey represents the cultural arc between the 60s and 70s.
Though I’ve only seen Inherent Vice once, within the past eight months I’ve only come to appreciate the film even more. Even though it may not be as initially awarding as Anderson’s best movies like Magnolia or There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice is a picture that stays with you, whose haunting depiction of American counter-culture acts as a bygone for a lost world.