"There is an air of quiet death about this house," the man says, and indeed, it is that residual coldness that distinguishes Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread from the usual tale involving a curious romance and its various power dynamics. We get a sense of Reynolds Woodcock, the man who makes up one-half of that romance, from his routine, which is as carefully curated in its patterns as those of the dresses he designs. He awakens early (often before the sun rises), breakfasts in intended peace, and goes to work almost immediately upon whatever project or commission busies his day (The one that is the centerpiece for the action of the film is a wedding dress for a Belgian princess).
The name and its theatricality suggest a man of some importance. It would not be surprising, in other words, to find out that this is a pseudonym adopted for his public persona, if not for the fact that it answers to his Christian name and his mansion/workplace is known as the "House of Woodcock." As played by Daniel Day-Lewis, in a performance (supposedly the actor's last, though one never knows with such announcements of retirement) of expected but no-less-astonishing reserve and dignity, Reynolds is a man of quietude and seclusion. He does not think much of celebrations or even dinner parties. The two that he attends here are out of obligation. His look of disdain and even discomfort in the presence of others who revere his importance says more than his carefully chosen words can.
He hasn't much time for anything but work, really, as we witness in an opening scene where his dismissal of a muse's distracting quality of confronting him with some personality problem of his is a superbly indifferent dismissal of the entire relationship. The moment is a dryly amusing one in a movie filled with such barbs and quips. Anderson's screenplay doesn't have to dig deep to find those in such a closed world with such an absurd reflection of the one on the outside. In the House of Woodcock, Reynolds is like a gluttonous king, entirely selfish, annoyed at the interruptions of real life (It has rubbed off on his sister Cyril, played by Lesley Manville, but she has more than a little control over him, too, we soon discover), and protective of his castle. That makes the interruption brought on by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who takes his elaborate order and comes to understand something vital in that exchange, all the more provocative and potent.
What follows requires some skillful avoidance of details, not because one can genuinely spoil the act of watching a movie by telling the audience what happens in it (This is not an ability a review has, whatever the spoiler-phobic might fear), but because a litany of the details would not be able to pin down what the film is for the uninitiated. A power dynamic evolves between Alma and Reynolds. At first, the complication is his remaining selfishness breeding a longing in Alma that slowly becomes a kind of loathing. A paradigm shift occurs, though, somewhere around the start of the film's last hour. The way Anderson subtly builds to it is genuinely involving.
Any further discussion of the plot, which hinges upon a series of metaphorical twists of the knife, would be tantamount to a betrayal of what awaits up Anderson's sleeve. "What precisely is the nature of my game?" inquires Reynolds during a crucial and breathless dinner sequence, the query a loaded scenario in itself because we are reminded of how guarded these characters are. In that way, Jonny Greenwood's lush but percussive score, unlike anything one would expect from this setting or the initial establishment of the premise, betrays Phantom Thread, which ends on a cosmic punch line of cruel irony. Like the rest of the film, it's funny, and then you think about it for a few minutes.
Daniel Day-Lewis (Reynolds Woodcock), Vicky Krieps (Alma), Lesley Manville (Cyril), Brian Gleeson (Dr. Hardy), Gina McKee (Countess Harding), Harriet Sansom Harris (Barbara Rose), Julia Davis (Lady Baltimore).
Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Rated R (language).
Released in select cities on December 25, 2017.