Inherent Vice (2014) | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

“The reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, and sometimes other orifices also.”

—Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Inherent Vice is a feverish contradiction of a film: at once lucid and hazy, self-aware and neurotic, fiercely present and elusive. From the same lineage as Chandler’s The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, the Coen Brothers’ comedy-capers, and David Lynch’s poisonous love letter to Hollywood, Mulholland Dr., Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film uses genre as a tool to dig at something deeper and darker. In a way, Anderson has been building up to the sublimity of Inherent Vice since There Will Be Blood in 2007. A nearly 3-hour expose on American greed and capitalist exploitation, spiked with just enough cryptic weirdness to render Anderson’s world familiar yet somehow foreign, There Will Be Blood extrapolates the cruelty underlying progress. Anderson uses his formal proficiency to sustain a singular feeling that trumps plot, buries it underground.

The story, as it were, is simple: Daniel Day-Lewis is an opportunistic, conniving, milkshake-drinking oil man named Daniel Plainview, a monster with crude oil coursing through his veins who sells the last lingering traces of his humanity for a profit. Like Plainview’s greasy mustache, the saprogenic depiction of capitalism is laid on thick and heavy, but when is capitalism ever subtle? When is religious piety ever modest? Anderson sustains his acrimonious atmosphere using bucolic scenery, Jonny Greenwood’s inimitable score, and sparse, poetic dialog that subtly insinuates and screams at the same time. While far from plotless, There Will Be Blood eschews the Robert McKee School of Screenwriting in its endless pursuit of ineffable meaning.

Anderson delved ever deeper into the murk of mysteriousness with The Master, his most difficult film. It depicts the enigmatic relationship between Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd and Joaquin Phoenix’s unstable WWII veteran Freddie Quell. Across lush 65mm photography replete with azure skies and undulating waves, Anderson again takes his time, lets his camera linger, demands to be analyzed like one of Dodd’s lost acolytes. At once psycho-sexual and abstinent, disquieting and serene, it’s prescient of Inherent Vice in its many beautiful contradictions that defy easy interpretation. As Pynchon himself told an inquisitive interviewer, “Why should things be easy to understand?”

And now there’s Inherent Vice, the chattier, yet calmer cousin of Anderson’s two prior films. After penning his own original script for The Master, Anderson turned to Thomas Pynchon, one of the most iconic American post-modernist writers of the ’60s and ’70s, for inspiration, the way he turned to Upton Sinclair for There Will Be Blood. But this time he follows the novel with exacting loyalty instead of with associative digression, despite the fact that Pynchon’s labyrinthine novels, which mingle physics, math, philosophy, history, and sociology—all told with dexterous wordplay that rejects established grammar norms—have long been considered inadaptable.

Inherent Vice, considered “Pynchon-lite” by many a book snob (I’m sort of in that camp, admittedly, but I find it much more enjoyable than Pynchon’s “serious” books anyway) has been erroneously described as the novelist’s Big Lebowski. The non-hero, Doc Sportello, a burned-out detective with a penchant for pot, tries to solve a mystery that may not even be a mystery at all. Really, he tries to solve three different mysteries. Or maybe he doesn’t.

The film is an insubordinate neo-noir in which the Mystery proper rides shotgun while Mysteriousness sits behind the wheel. Anderson weaves a tortuous tale of love and greed masquerading as a detective story. Deceit and death abound. It’s ostensibly a foolish film inhabited by foolish characters, but really it’s the one fooling you. In order to appreciate its hallucinatory beauty, you have to plant it in your memory and allow it to bloom into something more profound, something almost ontological. Inherent Vice needs time to turn, turn, turn over in your mind. As per the novel:

“What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be into a whole ‘nother song.”

Doc’s ex-lover Shasta Fay (a captivating Katherine Waterson, who—apropos of nothing— kind of looks like Lana Del Rey) goes missing, as does a mafia bigwig and Nazi-sympathizer Jew named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Someone gets clipped, Doc is framed, and local detective-cum-entertainer Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, having a hell of a good time as the stone-faced, iron-jawed cop), nicknamed for his habit of kicking down doors and violating civil rights, shows up to make Doc’s life hell. Doc and Bigfoot have history, though, given Doc’s decrepit memory, it’s a bit fuzzy.

With help from his Maritime lawyer friend Sauncho Smilax (the excellent Benicio Del Toro), Doc embarks on a misadventure full of inscrutable characters and roundabouts. He encounters a coke-huffing dentist/syndicate front man in a deep, almost ultraviolet velvet suit (Martin Short, hysterical and overdue for a comeback); the drug-using daughter (Sasha Pieterse) of the syndicate’s lead lawyer (Martin Donovan); a licentious, warm-hearted call girl (Hong Cau); and a coterie of other oddballs. The cast is all-around excellent, though Short steals every scene into which he slithers, all powder-nosed and paranoid, and Del Toro hasn’t been this much fun since Sin City (which is painful to type). The whole film is pervaded by a deep, dark, often inexplicable sense of humor—dick jokes, poop jokes, untamed vaginas and deft wordplay are all present and accounted for, and Anderson displays a unique style of humor he only previously insinuated (Day-Lewis gets a few dark howlers in There Will Be Blood, though the jokes are always usurped by genuine horror; milkshakes are all fun and games until Paul Dano gets his skull caved in by a bowling ball pin). When you get down to it, Anderson seems almost ebullient compared to his previous films.

Like Anderson’s last two flicks, Inherent Vice poses questions without answers and offers irrelevant answers to queries unparsed. It demands repeated viewings so it can expand in the mind like a plume of smoke: key pieces of information aren’t so much withheld as they are left unchecked until late in the film; the visuals reveal clues, if “clues” is indeed the right word, that only make sense, if “sense” is the right word, once you’ve seen subsequent scenes. Dialogue is spat out quickly and without room to account for the copious amounts of laughter it spurs. Almost demure in its depiction of the world as a greedy, self-loathing Ouroboros, it offers a different, no less dour but considerably more romantic view of Western Society, propelled by the inertia of a broken heart and guided by dumb fucking luck. Unfurling at the erratic pace of a pot-smoking sad sack’s solipsistic musings, the film converges Sportello’s personal problems and his cases, which leaves him, and the viewers, confused. Pynchon understands the monochrome world of hard-boiled detectives better than most, and his novel is at once a loving lark of the genre and a genuine masterclass in the form. Way back in his mind-fuck of an opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, he revealed the secret to mystery fiction: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

In a way, though, Inherent Vice is absurdly simple: Doc is disconsolate because he lost his girlfriend, and his desolation, combined with his smoking habit, is messing with him. The gravity of the situation, whatever the situation is, eludes Doc in the face of his heartbreak. More vitative than vindictive, Doc is one of the few genuinely good, innocent male characters Anderson has conjured—the auteur usually deals in dicks and greed, but the innocuous Doc is chained to his scar-tissue heart. Chandler said dead men are heavier than broken hearts, but don’t tell Doc that.

“Through the machineries of greed, pettiness, and the abuse of power, love occurs,” Pynchon writes in The Crying of Lot 49. By that logic, Doc is just another cog in the vast, well-greased machine, but he’s popped out of place and is rattling around somewhere in the dark.

The world couldn’t care less that Doc’s heartbroken. Everyone wants to get paid; no one wants to get dead. The mystery of the Golden Fang and the missing girl and the missing guy and the other missing guy basically comes down to good old American greed, something a private eye with smelly feet and sloppy mutton chops wouldn’t know much about. Mention greased palms to Doc and his mind is likely to wander somewhere more salacious.

Inherent Vice feels small and insular, a less-than-profound genre romp with little self-awareness. Channeling The Big Sleep (whose lack of conclusion baffled even its director, a Mr. Howard Hawks), Inherent Vice has no closure, or major apparent themes. Already its detractors have labeled it pointless and sloppy; the first is a forgivable misunderstanding, while the second is just lazy-ass movie watching. Senselessness is the theme, confusion is the point. It’s hyper-self-aware, like a stoner on edge, to the point of seeming oblivious. It can’t see the forest for the trees because it’s too busy smoking trees.

As with the contrast and clash of personalities and emotions in The Master, elucidated by the imagery and syncopated rhythm, feeling lost and dazed is the hippie heart of Inherent Vice. Doc doesn’t know shit, and neither do we. No one really knows anything—even the one character we think we have a beat on, Brolin’s unflinching, admonishing, flat top-sporting cop Bigfoot Bjornsen, manages to elude us in the end. Bigfoot shows up, aptly announcing his presence by kicking down Doc’s door, and proceeds to literally pile handfuls of marijuana in his mouth like a chubby little child in Wonka’s factory. Why? As Doc so articulately opines: “Fucking Bigfoot. Well, wouldn’t you know.”

But maybe you wouldn’t.