Inherent Vice

INHERENT VICE. Starring: Joaquín Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin, Martin Short, Joanna Newsom, and Eric Roberts. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong sex scenes, frequent drug use and nudity). 149 min.

This is an American crime drama that is based on a 2009 novel by the same name written by Thomas Pynchon about a free-lancing detective in the 1970s investigating the disappearance of a former girlfriend. It is set in California, USA, in the era of the Manson murder trial, and the drug deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

The film was voted one of the 10 best movies of 2014 by the National Board of Review (NBR), and awarded Best Adapted Screenplay by the NBR and the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. The Director of the film (Paul Thomas Anderson) was the Director of "The Master" which was one of the top movies of 2012. Like "The Master", this is a movie with a very dense and psychologically complicated plot-line, and characterisation.

Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquín Phoenix) is a private investigator who lives in the Bay Area of Los Angeles. He is part of the hippie culture, and mostly goes around stoned on marihuana. One day, he is unexpectedly visited by his ex-girl friend, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), and she wants his help. Shasta is in love with a billionaire land-developer, called Mickey (Eric Roberts), but Mickey's wife and her boyfriend want to kidnap him and commit him to an asylum, and she is caught in between. Mickey has disappeared and Shasta does too, and Larry is left to sort it all out.

In the course of multiple plot developments, "Doc" ends up unconscious on the footpath with the corpse of one of Mickey's bodyguards lying next to him. Plot complications pile on top of each other, until the viewer is forced to the conclusion that maybe it is the society that is crazy, rather than the people in it.

The movie is an incoherent mix of the bleak with the bizarre, and introduces the viewer to a cavalcade of eccentric characters, ranging from a drug-addicted musician from a surf-rock band (Owen Wilson), to an over-sexed dentist hooked on coke (Martin Short), and a corrupt police officer, Detective Christian Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who has a strange love-hate relationship with Larry and gives a particularly colourful performance as "Bigfoot", the "renaissance detective". An astrologer (Joanna Newsom) provides a voice-over for the film, but her oddness makes her sound confused. Amidst a haze of weirdness, it is her narration that gives the chosen meaning to the film's title. "Inherent vice" to her is not what one morally expects, but "anything you can't avoid".

Joaquin Phoenix is unquestionably the star of this film. Though almost constantly stoned on drugs, he controls his bizarreness enough to reveal an anti-hero private eye, whose character satirises America's counter-drug culture of the '70s. His performance is complex, subtle, and richly layered. Phoenix is nicely supported by Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, and Josh Brolin, and the movie has an excellent musical score.

This is a philosophical whodunit, one where attachment and affection turn at the bat of an eyelid into power play, and it sweepingly combines mystery, romance and comedy. It is a wonderfully textured, bold and complex film that captures effectively the sensual appeal of the hedonistic '70s in the USA. It offers solid drama for that period, critiques the social era of the 70's akin to what "Chinatown" (1974) and "L.A. Confidential" (1997) did for Los Angeles in their time, and it provides comic glimpses of humanity that are tucked away in the behaviour of odd people. A tripped out hippie takes up drug counselling, for instance, and dissolute people worry incongruously about having "bad hippie dreams".

The film's' sub-plots twist and turn, but it is impossible not to be responsive in some way to the culture that Anderson creates so effortlessly and darkly. It is not a movie that brings rational logic at all to bear on its meaning, and several scenes make their moral point by painting immorality so starkly. The film leaves the viewer with the distinct impression that Anderson wants to tell us that the forces of "greed, pleasure-seeking and anxiety", that determined the lives of the people who lived in the '70s, are alive and well today in other forms.

This is a movie that will appeal mostly to film-goers who are looking for much more than routine crime movies routinely offer. It is unusual film-making, full of dramatic plot coincidences, that are challenging and involving, and it is a movie that invites the classification of a cult "noir" film. For fans especially of Joaquín Phoenix and Paul Thomas Anderson, and those who can remember the excesses of the hippie culture of the '70s, it is a powerfully evocative film that is complex, absorbing, and very distinctive.

Peter W Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Roadshow Films

Released March 12th., 2015

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