Booze, women, and movies: These are the wastes of substance that Senator Charles E. Grassley specified, in early December, as weaknesses of the financially and morally impoverished. Guilty as charged. I like all three, and I don’t have a penny.
So welcome, fellow culpable spendthrifts, to the end-of-year movie column, where I suggest new ways to diminish America’s greatness! By the time this is over, I will have encouraged you to throw your money away on the silly spectacle of Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, the anti-Trump propaganda of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, and an inexplicable period melodrama (with plenty of couture and cocktail music) by Paul Thomas Anderson, titled Phantom Thread, that’s sure to leave you shrugging.
Payne’s Downsizing (written with the help of his long-standing collaborator Jim Taylor) is a cheerful fantasy on the subjects of ecological doom, intractable class and race divisions, and the supremacy of marketing over human affairs. Bright with the blue of billboard skies and the gold of sales brochures, it also shines with the blinding fluorescence of a private medical center, where Matt Damon, in his American Everyman mode, gets himself reduced to a perfectly proportioned five inches tall. The miniaturization is another reason why this deeply pessimistic story bounces along so genially. You can’t feel too bad when a thousand visual tricks, executed so they’re charmingly obvious, turn the movie into a toymaker’s wonderland.
A director who thrives on the visual and emotional power of real American locations, sometimes beautiful (Sideways, The Descendants) but more often workaday and down-at-the-heels (About Schmidt, Nebraska), Payne has never before practiced the Santa’s-workshop method of filmmaking. He’s done it now so he can match his style to the ingenuity of the premise. Say that a marvelous invention can lessen humanity’s toll on the environment by making people tiny—on a voluntary basis, of course. Say that this Earth-saving technology migrates from research institutes and NGOs into the hands of American corporations, which convert it into a scheme for selling lifetime memberships in communities that are not just gated but bell-jarred. In subdivisions with names like The Summit at Navajo Orchards, miniature people can now enjoy the McMansions of their dreams while feeling they’ve done something for the planet. Will Matt Damon and his wife, Kristen Wiig, go on fretting over their bills in Omaha, in the cramped and dowdy house that’s all they can afford? Or will they do the right thing by retiring to the Southwest in early middle age, to the minuscule but ultra-high-bourgeois comfort of Leisureland?
They retire, of course—at which point Downsizing begins to play out, with jovial amusement, all the nastiness and woe that the wee people have brought with them into their scale-model development. Southwestern mini-paradise comes complete with compact slums, extremely short menial laborers (most of them Spanish-speaking), and a market in thimble-size counterfeit luxury goods, the latter of which are supplied by Christoph Waltz with his best grinning, cynical, Eurotrash flair. As a challenge to the conscience, Leisureland also offers a peg-legged Vietnamese refugee—played by Hong Chau, in a flamethrower of a performance—who seizes on Damon to boss around. She has the crazy notion that she needs to do good in her world, no matter how shrunken, and he needs to help.
“When once you have thought of big men and little men,” Dr. Johnson claimed, to dismiss Gulliver’s Travels, “it is very easy to do all the rest.” I bet he’d think Downsizing looks easy, too. Clever surprises flow without strain into goofy jokes, parodic riffs into sad absurdities, and all seem light enough to blow away, never to be missed—as if they were the dandelion heads that tower over Matt Damon like the crests of palm trees. How simple of Alexander Payne.
How mind-breakingly difficult, in fact, to show our desperation to us like a bauble.
As a rule, it takes two years to make a big-studio movie, from the day the producer commits to the project to opening night. The production of The Post, undertaken on a 10-month schedule almost unknown since the demise of the studio system, tells you something about how good it is to be Steven Spielberg, and how urgently he wanted this story told.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, it was late February 2017 when Spielberg read the script for The Post, forwarded to him on behalf of first-time feature writer Liz Hannah. Evidently, he liked what he saw: a tribute to the crusading investigative journalists who brought the Pentagon Papers to the public, despite threats of jail time and worse from the Nixon White House, and a sympathetic portrait of a woman, The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham, who in the course of this episode assumed the full authority that men had thought she couldn’t wield.
Because Spielberg rarely confides in me, I can’t say for sure why he was so taken by these subjects at just this moment. All I know is that a few weeks into the catastrophe of the Trump administration, he decided to make this film, signed Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks the same day (when you’re Spielberg, you can do that sort of thing), called in Josh Singer to polish the script with Hannah, and by the end of May was shooting the movie. He was determined to have The Post in theaters by the end of 2017. I doubt he’d explain the rush as I’ve done, by citing a need for anti-Trump propaganda. More likely, he’d say he wanted to give the public an exciting and entertaining story of timely interest—and so he has. Split the difference.
Now that The Post is on-screen—it opens on Friday—you can see how the speed of production has seeped into the movie’s texture. It’s not just that the story rips along, breathlessly generating suspense. (This, despite your knowing how things will turn out, as you did in Lincoln.) The main characters are all racing against various deadlines, so of course they bustle in and out of scenes, snapping out lines left and right and making messes in their nervous excitement. But, beyond that, there’s a brisk air of getting on with the job, in both the performances and the direction, that moves The Post away from Spielberg’s usual manner of grand moments, giving it something of the efficiency of a good Clint Eastwood picture.
That helps, since an outward-looking story about Ben Bradlee’s pursuit of a big scoop needs to mesh with an inward-looking story about Kay Graham’s self-doubt and growing self-assertion. The movie hits all its marks in the latter plotline and goes on without lingering, in a process greatly assisted by Streep. It’s fun to watch America’s highest-powered, most honored actress pretending to vacillate and falter, until Graham chooses (with a mere tilt of Streep’s head and a lift of an eyebrow) to become what she’s meant to be.
Just as important, congenital speed enables The Post to be something more than rousing. It will make you cheer all right, provided you believe what the Trumpists do not: that newspapers have the duty to hold governments accountable, and women have the right to make decisions at every level of society. But even as it revs you up, The Post also reminds you that both public faith in the mission of the press and the rights of women were won not so long ago, and their permanence can’t be assumed.
That’s a somber realization, as Trump Year One blunders toward its close. All the more reason for The Post to have its dark thoughts but not dwell on them. Spielberg gives you a touch of complexity and then breezes past it, toward the feel-good climax he bets you need. It’s not among his great movies—but it’s one to be grateful for.
It’s right that fortune should favor Paul Thomas Anderson, who once resolved a plot by means of a citywide rain of frogs. Weird, unforeseeable circumstances have worked for him by greeting his new film, Phantom Thread, with a downpour of Harvey Weinsteins.
Not that there’s anything unpleasantly frog-like about the film’s chronic abuser of women: a 1950s London dressmaker to the wealthy and titled who has the good luck to be portrayed by a sleek, trim, murmuring, and impeccably groomed Daniel Day-Lewis. Nevertheless, the coincidence of the film’s release with the current outpouring of women’s righteous anger makes the contemporary parallel leap to mind. Phantom Thread is the story of an infinitely self-involved artist-entrepreneur who regularly supplies his atelier with women and then coldly disposes of them, as if they were the rags with which he wipes his shoes. More to the point: It’s the story of the ritzy dressmaker’s contest with the latest in his series, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who refuses to be tossed away.
If not for the Weinstein effect, audiences might currently be scratching their heads, trying to figure out why this period, this milieu, and these characters should be of pressing concern. Granted, the costumes are extravagant, the settings alternately lush and scenic, the music (by Jonny Greenwood) an often dazzling reinvention of the respectable pop of the 1950s (somewhere between cocktail lounge and light classics), and the performances as finely finished as the couture. That said, watching Phantom Thread is like being presented with a cream-colored, engraved invitation, with heraldic crest, to a party that was held 60 years ago. What the hell does Anderson expect you to do with it?
After scanning the early reviews, I’m convinced nobody has a clue—and maybe Anderson likes it that way. He’s hinted at a touch of the esoteric in Phantom Thread by having the dressmaker sew small, personal mementos and messages into the linings of his garments. Perhaps the filmmaker, too, has hidden a private meaning somewhere in the picture. As to the meaning the public can take away, the best guess I’ve seen, by the veteran critic Todd McCarthy, is that we should enjoy Phantom Thread as an homage to Hitchcock’s melodramas (notably Rebecca) and a reflection on the perfectionism and misogyny of Hitchcock himself. That’s a smart, perfectly reasonable interpretation; but I think it stops short of suggesting why anyone other than an obsessive cinephile should care about this movie.
That’s where Weinstein and his like might lend a hand. Not that Day-Lewis’s character has any of that gang’s oafish lewdness. Just the opposite: He’s aloof, meticulous, and seems almost indifferent to sex. But he does share their conviction that women are mere instruments of his will. Anderson makes the point early on, after Day-Lewis has plucked Alma out of a restaurant where she works as a waitress and has begun to measure her for modeling. She seems abashed to be told that she has no breasts but is at once corrected. “It’s my job to give you some,” he explains calmly. “If I choose to.” By this point, you’ve already learned that this man recognizes only two women as existing in their own right: the sister who runs the dressmaking house for him (Lesley Manville) and his long-dead mother. All others are like Alma: semi-inert stuff, to be fashioned as he likes for as long as he likes.
At first she seems willing enough to be his disposable Galatea: a fresh-faced but no longer girlish immigrant who speaks with a vaguely continental accent and trips over her own feet when she first waits on Day-Lewis in the restaurant. But like the women who are done with being silent about the Weinsteins, Alma proves to have the capacity to answer back. First she dares to make noise buttering her toast at the breakfast table, disturbing the great man’s peace, and persists when she’s told to stop. Then, when casually informed that she has no taste, she suggests she might have tastes of her own. Ultimately, she goes so far in her self-assertion as to turn the plot of Phantom Thread into something Hitchcock might have imagined.
The difference between this film and a Hitchcock melodrama is that Alma goes to her outrageous extremes lovingly—and perhaps the dressmaker knows it. The deepest mystery of Phantom Thread, and the strongest source of its suspense, is the question of what these two people might understand about each other, and what emotional bargain they might strike.
The potential for a powerful man and a vulnerable woman to come to terms is of course not a part of the present struggle over sexual abuse—especially not if the terms negotiated are as twisted as those in Phantom Thread. But to be compelling, a film doesn’t have to speak out on an issue. So long as it sounds some ground note of reality—even a random, extraneous ground note, like that of the Weinstein scandal—it can build up a ringing tower of sympathetic vibrations that you’d swear were symphonic, if they didn’t hang in the air like ghosts. What’s going on in Phantom Thread? Damned if I know—but I’m sure I feel it.
Finally, rather than write about the latest Star Wars (which hardly needs promotion), I’d rather say a few words about another of the outstanding cash-burners of 2017, which is now winning awards: Jordan Peele’s indelible horror movie, Get Out.
Given that the film has been out for a while, you probably know that Get Out is the story of a young African-American man who ventures into the wealthy suburbs for a weekend with his white girlfriend’s family. There, he begins to feel even more assailed by creepiness than he’d expected—teeth-grindingly overwhelmed, as if every time these people try not to make him uncomfortable they sprinkle sour, powdery candy on his molars.
White liberal journalists, knowing that Peele got his start in comedy, have tagged Get Out as a satire on the racism that persists among their own groups. Permit me to say, no. In the first place, although Peele calculates just the right titration of comic relief for the film, he allows not one drop more. Satire implies the provocation of laughter, even if it’s harsh or mocking. The truly disturbing Get Out seldom raises so much as a smile.
In the second and more important place, the subject of Get Out is not white liberals. The subject is the emotional world of the film’s protagonist, Chris (the unfailingly sympathetic and convincing Daniel Kaluuya); and the primary intended witnesses to that world, sitting in the movie house or on their couches at home, are other African Americans. How else should I interpret the film’s mode of address? At a critical moment in the plot, another black character furiously shouts the title’s imperative at Chris. Peele, by extension, might be said to yell the same directive to every black person in the audience: Get out!
Get out of what? Let’s say the illusion that you can trust white people; the delusion that you can risk loving one of them.
Being the pale type myself, I don’t for a moment accept as literally true the premise of permanent, endemic white treacherousness. But Peele doesn’t ask that belief of me, or anyone. What he does is scream in terror that this premise might be true; he howls at the nightmare vision of white people exerting their dominance not just around him but inside his body.
I see very few movies that express an emotion with such intensity, or set their uncanny images like barbs in your brain. Black people who are curious about the awards hoopla may find that Get Out speaks to them. Those who are not black are free to eavesdrop. That’s the great advantage Peele gives himself by choosing this genre as his vehicle. Everybody knows how to watch a horror movie.