In anticipation of the Academy Awards, we polled our contributors to see who they thought should win the Oscar. Once we had our winners, we asked various writers to make the case for our selection in each category. Here, Patrick McGavin makes the case for the best adapted screenplay of 2014: "Inherent Vice" by Paul Thomas Anderson. Two winners will be announced Monday through Thursday, ending in our choices for Best Picture and Best Director on Friday.
"She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn't seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & and the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking like she swore she'd never look."
—Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice"
In Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant adaptation of Pynchon's 2009 novel, that opening is rendered in a radically different fashion, with sad and whispery shots of the golden Southern California light giving way to a soft, intoxicating and suggestively sexy voice of Sortilege (terrifically played by the singer and actress Joanna Newsom).
A voice over from a secondary figure. Superb, audacious or risky. Right at the start, Anderson cooly and beautifully lays out his plan of attack. He offers enough of the source material to satisfy the purist though colors it with his own perspective to repurpose a particular film language.
As has been widely reported, this is the first of Pynchon's seven novels to be made into a film. It is technically Anderson's second adaptation—his magisterial 2007 "There Will Be Blood" was taken from Upton Sinclair's "Oil," but even that was misleading, because the Sinclair was really just a taking off thread that Anderson ran with.
It is probably the tightest plotted of any of the writer's works. Even so, the movie runs for a glorious two and a half hours, and there's a great deal Anderson had to cut from the book, like a hallucinatory Las Vegas sideshow or an ending inside the cramped and claustrophobic airplane that was pretty much unfilmable.
"Inherent Vice," the movie, is a marvel of imagination, skill and ellipsis. Anderson finds many personal connections to the material, the movie's 1970 setting significantly was the year of his birth. Like the novel, the movie is a sad and generous mosaic that conjures a world, a lost Eden of failed revolution and social tumult marking a rotting vision of fading promise and an encroaching police state. "American life," Pynchon said, "was something to be escaped from."
The dialogue is evenly divided between Anderson and Pynchon. As expected, popular audiences stayed away from this great movie. As the movie finishes its theatrical run, it will not even get to $10 million in ticket receipts. The very thing that doomed it commercially is what makes it a great film: Anderson's fidelity to the spirit, manner and mores of Pynchon.
Anderson reproduces Pynchon's verve and daring to continually thwart and deny easy closure. "Inherent Vice" is a detective story that resolutely refuses to congeal. By the end it leaves as many questions open as possible. Building on from Pynchon, Anderson takes the central story, the private detective (Joaquin Phoenix, in his greatest performance) trying to save his lost love, the beautiful Shasta (Katherine Waterston), from a nefarious plot to deprive a real estate magnate of his wealth.
Anderson escalates the tension, madness and danger through an expressive and inspired roundelay of rigid and authoritarian cops, neo-Nazi bikers, surf rockers, counterrevolutionaries, a runaway heiress, a Chinese drug cartel and a drug-crazed dentist whose mysterious death was perhaps the result of a trampoline accident gone amok.
Anderson has set out to create a very particular time and place and give voice to the strangeness, violence and disruption. It took many shapes, the political, the sexual, the social unease. As one example, a long scene that clarifies the relationship between the central characters and makes palpable the hold Shasta carries over Doc is dramatized in the movie in a much different way than the novel, with a messy, hungry and complicated sexual energy between the two. Shasta is naked and avid, Doc unsure and angry, and the moment superbly captures the movie's complicated mix of energy and tone, the light open and soft, the unspoken emotions of the characters hard and angry.
If there's been one downside to Anderson's thrilling body of work, it is his tendency to repeat the same structural and thematic story of the symbiotic father and son relationship. He's gone beyond that here, and his porous and free style has never seemed so open and exacting. Of course, the credit is not his alone. (The work of his great cinematographer Robert Elswit is something to behold.)Here, the words and images flow and are all of a piece.