Review: Inherent Vice

19 March 2015 Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Review: Inherent Vice

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix

Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Ed#479, March 2015


When the Manson Family committed a murder spree across Los Angeles in 1969, it was a lurid end to the counterculture of the time. The dreamers had become strung-out dopers who’d completely lost touch with the reality they rejected. “I remember that no one was surprised,” wrote Joan Didion in ‘The White Album’, her seminal essay about the period.

It’s not just the haze of pot smoke or the film stock that appears bleached by the California sun that situates Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice, in this post-Manson milieu. There’s the thrum of paranoia, too. Shadows of Manson are everywhere: the cops view any gathering as a potential cult; thugs sport swastika tattoos on their cheeks. 

On the surface, Inherent Vice is psychedelic noir, faithful to the wry tone of the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel on which it’s based. But the stoner romping barely conceals a creeping sense of unease. Once again, Anderson works to shatter the facade of the American Dream, continuing on from There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012).

Luckily he eschews the novel’s misogynistic undercurrents by inventing a hippie narrator (played by ethereal singer Joanna Newsom), who gives the escapades of private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) the feel of a washed-out dream. He can never tell if he’s hallucinating or if his “doper’s intuition” is kicking in. Doc may have the detachment of a hard-boiled Raymond Chandler hero – and he’s just as susceptible to a pair of fluttering eyelids – but he’s far more lackadaisical.

When his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), asks him to investigate a scheme involving her new lover Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) – an eccentric real estate developer who disappears soon after – Doc descends into a rabbit hole of neo-Nazi bruisers, police corruption, missing junkies and a sphinx-like organisation called The Golden Fang. Each new client seems to be part of the labyrinthine puzzle, but is this just paranoia, too? 

Absurdist humour abounds, not to mention stars – including Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon and Maya Rudolph – but some will get frustrated by the film’s languid pacing and endless red herrings. What this meandering style allows Anderson to capture is the sense of a generation so determined to escape they’ve lost sight of the source of their malaise and, indeed, their purpose. 

There’s something rotten in the state of California, and nobody is impervious to the stench.

» Rebecca Harkins-Cross is The Big Issue's film editor.

This article appears in Ed#479 of The Big Issue.

 Inherent Vice is in cinemas 12 March.