“History is not Chronology, for that is left to lawyers,—nor is it Remembrance, for Remembrance belongs to the People. History can as little pretend to the Veracity of the one, as claim the Power of the other,— her Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit,— that there may ever continue more than one life-line back into a Past we risk, each day, losing our forebears in forever,— not a Chain of single Links, for one broken Link could lose us All,— rather, a great disorderly Tangle of Lines, long and short, weak and strong, vanishing into the Mnemonick Deep, with only their Destination in common.”

—The Rev. Wicks Cherrycoke, Mason & Dixon

Inherent Vice Joaquin Phoenix

It’s easy to feel cowed into submission by the sheer bigness of Paul Thomas Anderson’s three most recent features: dense, crowded, immaculately shot and composed, incident-heavy movies in which setpieces often seem to be competing with one another for attention and space. All three, despite their vast differences in texture and tone, present double portraits of troubled men set during a particularly tumultuous time and place in American history. Their heroes, such as they are, end up locked in an ideological opposition that somehow echoes a deeper, more pervasive tension in American life: the parasitic rivalry between Daniel Day-Lewis’s monomaniacal capitalist and Paul Dano’s maliciously self-denying man of the cloth in the 19th-century California landscape of There Will Be Blood (07); the uneasy mentorship that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s charismatic cult leader develops with Joaquin Phoenix’s broken-down vet as they move through the strange, suspended vision of Fifties America in The Master (12); and now, in Anderson’s newest film Inherent Vice, the antagonistic buddy romance that emerges between a pothead PI and a shell-shocked, crew-cut detective as each navigates the splintered world of Los Angeles in the early, paranoid Seventies.  

Anderson’s 1971 California is a messy boiling pot of acid freaks, dope fiends, heroin addicts, fascistic cops, black nationalists, neo-Nazis, corrupt developers, coke-snorting millionaires, baseball-bat-wielding ex-Army enforcers, Red-hunting movie stars, runaway teenage daughters and their murderously vengeful right-wing dads. This is the burnt-out 1971 of Joni Mitchell’s “California,” in which hippiedom’s great quest for freedom was starting to bleed into a desire for an absent sense of comfort and home—or, alternatively, into the weed-soaked oblivion of Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” or the druidic mysticism of “Stairway to Heaven.” It is also a 1971 filtered through the peculiar obsessions of Thomas Pynchon, whose seventh novel Inherent Vice is here closely adapted. The movie’s epigraph might, for all intents and purposes, have been the opening couplet from “Going to California,” which appeared on Led Zeppelin’s fourth record like a tired sigh: Spent my days with a woman unkind / smoked all my stuff and drank all my wine.

Anderson’s movie is anything but a tired sigh; its rhythm is closer to the nervous, slinking beat of Can’s “Vitamin C,” which kicks in thrillingly during the film’s title sequence. But like those lines, and like Anderson’s two previous films, Inherent Vice begins already immersed in the fallout from a failed utopia. We are given no simple backstory to explain why “Doc” Sportello—so named because he runs his illicit private eye business out of the back room of a medical clinic, and played by Phoenix with a somewhat more subdued energy than the ferocious kind he brought to his character in The Master—comes off as so deeply dislocated from the main fabric of American life. There’s a sense in which Anderson’s recent movies all begin with their protagonists in flight from something we never see head-on: a war, an economic depression, a culture, a counterculture, the threat of conformity. It isn’t necessarily that these men refuse to conform to the demands of society; often, it’s that they simply can’t.

Inherent Vice Benicio del Toro

There can be something deeply poignant about this inability on the part of Anderson’s protagonists to stop running. (Near the end of Inherent Vice, Sportello, having arranged for the reunion of an estranged couple, watches the sweet domestic scene through the window of a parked car before driving back to his own, markedly less settled life.) At the same time, the imaginative fertility of Anderson’s latest movies—the way they conflate meticulously re-created historical details with wild confabulations and surreal touches of pure fantasy, always trying to top their own sweeping gestures with wider and weightier ones—is linked, in my mind, with the way they close off all possible routes of access to the respective cultural mainstreams of the eras they depict. To be an Anderson hero is to be stuck in an unsettled—and, for that reason, exhilaratingly colorful—world.

It’s often America itself from which Anderson’s characters are trying to escape. “We discovered,” a black nationalist (Michael K. Williams, stealing his only scene) tells Doc to explain his prison alliance with a white supremacist, “that we held similar opinions about the United States government.” But Anderson is never deaf to the fact that this very rootlessness—this need to escape—is also a fundamental part of his heroes’ American inheritance. In There Will Be Blood, he found this tendency in an archetypical Western hero: the traveling prospector bent on gaining dominion over the land. In Inherent Vice—a wily fifth-generation Los Angeles noir that riffs with equal dexterity on the genre’s classical high-points (The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity), its radical Fifties masterpieces (In a Lonely Place, Kiss Me Deadly), its New Hollywood re-stagings (Chinatown, The Long Goodbye), and its Nineties postmodern updates (L.A. Confidential, The Big Lebowski)—he finds it in another familiar character type: the reckless, sharp-witted professional snoop caught up in a case beyond his pay scale. 

Like the films just mentioned, Inherent Vice gets off on the generation of plot. Its hilariously knotty narrative involves the mysterious disappearance of Doc’s ex-lover Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson) and her current lover, a high-profile real estate developer (Eric Roberts). This last character—“technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi,” as Jeannie Berlin, playing one of Doc’s gabby informers, puts it—is caught up in a shady land deal that turns out also to involve a sax player (Owen Wilson) forced by a powerful right-wing interest group into snitching against his underworld friends. At one point, both men end up living in a sinister mental hospital presided over by a Chinese heroin syndicate, whose payroll, in turn, also includes a flamboyant, coke-addled corporate executive (Martin Short) and—possibly—an LAPD-employed contract killer (Peter McRobbie) responsible for the death of, among others, the former partner of Doc’s main foil: one Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. (Pynchon has a gift, second only to Dickens, for the creation of goofily revealing character names.)

Inherent Vice Brolin Phoenix

Bjornsen is one of the movie’s richest characters, in part because Josh Brolin, perfecting a comic register in which he rarely gets to work, always keeps him so narrowly poised on the edge of caricature. Other crucial characters—Benicio Del Toro slouching in and out of the movie as Doc’s “maritime lawyer”; Reese Witherspoon providing an occasional dose of normalcy as his straight-laced DA lady friend; Joanna Newsom presiding over the film as a benevolent sage and occasional narrator—fill in the picture, but Inherent Vice is closer in spirit to Anderson’s recent two-handers than it is to his earlier, broad-canvased ensemble works. It’s a movie in which plot twists occur with such frequency that, in the end, their content becomes almost completely irrelevant. What’s left is simply the scaffold of a plot: a web of intersections and convergences that do for the movie what the texture of a canvas might do for a painting.

The painting in question is, like all of Anderson’s recent movies, a large-scale portrait of an individual who, in his particular failures, losses, commitments and dislikes, embodies something fundamental about the time and place in which he lives. Regardless over how many days, weeks, or months they take place, these are films that move in historical time; their grand subject is the fading of epochs, the birth of nations, and the passage of entire generations from innocence to disillusionment. At their best, they achieve a dazzling synthesis of individual and collective experience, as in Inherent Vice’s most emotionally overwhelming scene: a brief flashback to a rain-soaked afternoon Doc and Shasta once spent looking, per a Oujia board’s instructions, for a nonexistent weed hookup in a vacant lot, scored to the cracked grace of Neil Young’s “Journey to the Past.” But it’s also this that accounts for the singularly exhausting quality of Anderson’s movies, which, once their virtuosic effects start to fade off, can leave one feeling depleted and mildly shell-shocked.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that the effects Anderson desires are sometimes irreconcilably at odds. He wants the God’s-eye scope of Stendhal without Stendhal’s cynical, Machiavellian streak; Melville’s deep, burrowing insight into the American consciousness without Melville’s willingness to speak in tones as earnest and grave as those of a sacred text. Pynchon, an author uniquely gifted at forcing ironic, self-consciously goofy elements to co-exist with sincere and unapologetically moving ones, might be the closest thing Anderson has to a literary model. (This is, after all, an author who, in his 1997 novel Mason and Dixon, managed to compose a genuinely profound hymn to the historical “arts of the quidnunc”—i.e., of the busybody—that doubled as an elaborate, ironic parody of a long-defunct literary style’s attempts at profundity.)

Inherent Vice Reese Witherspoon

One of Inherent Vice’s greatest strengths is the seamless tonal synthesis it finds between the jocular casualness of a stoned-out shaggy dog story and the full tragic sense of a historical saga: in this case, an elegy for a generation’s burnt-out dreams. But for all its goofy asides and imaginative excesses, the movie never fully eases up; here, as in Anderson’s previous films, the dominant impression is of a swollen, tense, supremely effortful grasping on the director’s part for ever bigger and grander effects. The price of Anderson’s consistent, remarkable success at achieving such effects may be that, like many of his characters, he never finds it in himself to relax.