The Directorial Excellence of Paul Thomas Anderson

Five things that make Phantom Thread’s writer/director legendary

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is already being touted as new masterpiece of cinema. It's an exquisite love story between London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the young foreigner (Vicky Krieps) he falls for, a romance that has won over the hearts of critics and fans alike. For many, it clearly demonstrates why Paul Thomas Anderson belongs in the pantheon of filmmakers whom, in fellow director Sam Mendes' appraisal, "I would classify as geniuses.” After seven remarkable features since 1996, Phantom Thread is for Indiewire “proof of a filmmaker operating at the height of his powers.” 

While Phantom Thread differs in some ways from Anderson's earlier work—this is his first feature set outside of the United States­­––it also echoes qualities and themes that make his movies so distinctive and exceptional. We look back to see how this elegant tale of desire and design in London’s world of haute couture reflects and amplifies five key elements of Paul Thomas Anderson's artistry.

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Official trailer for Phantom Thread

1) Bigger-than-life characters 

Like many of Anderson’s protagonists, Reynolds Woodcock defies expectation. Brilliant, charismatic, impossible, and unstoppable, he is a character as masterfully crafted as many of his couture gowns. The New York Times highlights Woodcock’s similarity to the hero of Anderson’s There Will Be BloodDaniel Plainview––played by Day-Lewis as well––as being “an avatar of obsession, driven this time by the pursuit of aesthetic perfection rather than money and power.” In film after film, Anderson dissects with Shakespearean precision the wild dreams and faulty ambition of powerfully driven men. From a porn star in pursuit of acceptance in Boogie Nights to a megalomaniacal cult leader in The Master to an oilman consumed by success, Anderson’s characters burn explosively on screen, but perhaps none with such a refined flame as Woodcock. 

Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock in Phantom Thread

2) A cinematic style to fit the story 

In their review of There Will Be Blood, Newsweek wrote, “Anderson may be the most naturally gifted filmmaker of his generation; he seems incapable of composing a prosaic shot.” Not only is each shot stunning, but with each film, he develops a film style and grammar that best tells his tale. From the ambling tracking shots that introduce the world of Boogie Nights to the stark panoramic long shots of There Will Be Blood, Anderson creates a visual vocabulary that make each world feel specific and rich. For Phantom Thread, Anderson picked up the camera to give the film his own handcrafted feel, “styling the film with a grainy, muted texture—tailored and expensive but lived-in,” notes Vanity Fair

Paul Thomas Anderson's lyrical camerawork sets the tone for Phantom Thread.

3) A harmonious marriage of story and score

Few directors wed music and mood as skillfully as Anderson. From the disco-drenched soundtrack of Boogie Nights to the delicately dissonant score for There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s choice of music never simply accompanies the film, but rather engages in a complex, often unexpected, dialogue with the image. With Magnolia, Anderson collaborated with Aimee Mann­­––whose song “Save Me” garnered an Academy Award nomination––to find the plaintive musical heart of the film’s lost Valley souls. For Phantom Thread, Anderson teamed up for his fourth collaboration with Jonny Greenwood to craft, as The Hollywood Reporter describes it, “a gorgeously melodious, piano-dominated score that would have been right at home as part of a black-and-white late-1940s romantic melodrama.”

Paul Thomas Anderson and his composer Jonny Greenwood

4) An actor’s director

Considering the record––seven Academy Award nominations for acting over seven films––it is little wonder that performers sign up to work with Anderson. A master of story and camera, Anderson admits, “The only thing I ever really look at in movies is the actors.” Many have appeared in more than one of his films. Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in five features, receiving an Oscar nod for The Master. Daniel Day-Lewis’ first Anderson film, There Will Be Blood, won the actor an Academy Award for Best Actor. And many critics agree that his second outing has proven just as stunning with The New York Times announcing, “Daniel Day-Lewis Sews Up Another Great Performance in Phantom Thread.”

Daniel Day-Lewis works with Paul Thomas Anderson to make Phantom Thread.

5) Making history tangible

While each of Anderson’s films takes place during a different historical moment, they share the same of quality of perfectly capturing their period’s zeitgeist. From the Southern California’s porn explosion in Boogie Nights to post-War America’s new spiritual technologies in The Master, Anderson somehow manages to condense the grand sweep of history and the texture of lived experience into a single cinematic experience. Early on, Roger Ebert  praised Anderson as “a skilled reporter who fills his screen with understated, authentic details.” Phantom Thread is no less precise, as The New York Times exclaims, in paying “homage to the bygone era of London couture.” 

Anderson captures the lived experience of a 1950's fashion house in Phantom Thread.

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