From 1996’s “Hard Eight” through “Inherent Vice” in 2014, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson produced a vast historical survey of California and the Southwest. Moving through the San Fernando Valley of “Boogie Nights” and “Punch-Drunk Love” to the New Mexico desert, San Francisco, Nevada and beyond, his work has grown in scope both geographically and thematically. In a beautifully produced new book, “Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks,” critic Adam Nayman analyzes the movies in the order in which they’re set, and “[w]hat emerges,” he writes, “is a largely localized yet hugely allusive and expansive cinematic century, a social, economic, architectural and psychogeographic history” of the region. Great Californian forces — philosophical, religious, moral, political — are at play in Anderson’s work, governing the dirty business of oil, the filthy business of pornography, and much else besides.
Like one of his own tycoons or hustlers, forever upping the stakes, Anderson has now made eight films of increasing ambition and scope. They include the 188-minute “Magnolia,” the historical tragedy “There Will Be Blood” and, most recently, 2017’s “Phantom Thread,” which nonchalantly demonstrated that Anderson’s mastery of tone, cadence and milieu also extended to the world of haute couture in 1950s England.
His ninth feature — working title: “Soggy Bottom” — reportedly finds Anderson returning to his Valley roots. Currently in production with a cast including Bradley Cooper, Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman (son of Philip Seymour Hoffman), it’s expected in 2021. But despite the familiar setting, one wouldn’t bet against “Soggy Bottom” adding new dimensions to an already extraordinary career.
New to Paul Thomas Anderson? Here’s where to start.
"Boogie Nights" (1997)
It’s 1977, and Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) is a dishwasher with a big not-so-secret. When he meets Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a director of “exotic pictures,” he takes the name Dirk Diggler and sets out to become “a big, bright shining star” in the adult-film industry.
After “Hard Eight,” a low-key but impressive debut, “Boogie Nights” was an explosive statement of intent. With its large ensemble cast, including Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle and John C. Reilly, it’s a propulsive cascade of warm, vivid, occasionally violent snapshots of the porn industry as it undergoes both technological and social change. It’s also a fabulous extended joke of a movie — the apotheosis of Anderson’s penchant for phallic gaggery — edging toward a climactic shot of, well, earned notoriety. It is, as Nayman writes, “a movie whose aesthetic is defined simultaneously by size, rhythm, and duration — beyond-the-frame production design; excitably accelerated montage; elongated tracking shots calling attention to their own athletic stamina.” Anderson had arrived.
Stanley Kubrick screened “Boogie Nights” on the set of “Eyes Wide Shut,” and it was there that Anderson met Tom Cruise. Cruise expressed a desire to work together and Anderson promptly wrote him into “Magnolia,” another ensemble epic set in the Valley. Exploring chance, fate and the power of secrets and lies through a network of overlapping narratives, the movie was supercharged by Cruise’s stardust and achieved a wide release despite its epic running time, stressful emotional content and stylistic quirks.
While Anderson and the film’s editor, Dylan Tichenor, later conceded it could do with a trim, “Magnolia” remains a thrilling three hours, tensely constructed and “defined,” says Nayman, “by its fleet, hurtling sense of purpose.” Its various stories echo and comment on one another, creating what Tichenor calls “some really numinous moments” — not least a surprising entr’acte singalong to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” (not even the strangest development in the movie’s third hour). The film’s ebullient excesses are the mark of a director stretching the limits of what he can do with his material, making “Magnolia” a natural terminus for the first phase in Anderson’s artistic development.
"There Will Be Blood" (2007)
For 15 minutes, “There Will Be Blood” is a silent movie. It opens in the New Mexico desert, where Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) digs for silver, breaks his leg, discovers oil and takes into his care the orphaned son of a fellow prospector. The storytelling is tense, immediate and wholly visual, in marked contrast to the logorrheic style of Anderson’s early work. It has the pared-back quality of myth, the terse economy of tragedy.
As in the wonderful romance “Punch-Drunk Love” (2002) that preceded it, Anderson’s focus shifts here from the ensemble to the individual. “I have a competition in me,” says Plainview. “I want no one else to succeed.” His misanthropy is what drives the action and seals fates, including that of his primary nemesis, the conniving preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). This is not the story of a man who loses his soul but that of a man who never had one, who drills and drills but is never sated. It’s a richly textured, savage movie, spare and desolate.
"The Master" (2012)
Five years later came “The Master,” another movie drawn ineluctably to darkness. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a belligerent, libidinous alcoholic haunted by his experiences in World War II. On the run from life, he stumbles onto a yacht owned by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charlatan leader of a cult called the Cause. Freddie is both drawn and resistant to the movement, violently reproachful of those who question its tenets yet unable to attain its promised enlightenment. The movie explores the skittish, perhaps subliminally romantic, relationship between Quell and Dodd.
There was something prescient in Anderson’s depiction, in 2012, of a combustible charismatic leader pushing alternative facts. Indeed, it’s tempting to see in that loose trilogy, “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master” and “Inherent Vice,” a shimmering allegory of our current crisis. In the first, we find capitalism unbound, in all its rapacity. In the second, mendaciousness reinscribed as ideology. And in the last — a shaggy-dog detective story about “some creepy little scheme” involving a syndicate of dentists, an “Indo-Chinese heroin cartel” and a conservative group that styles itself as “Vigilant California” — we find conspiracy, dark money and shadowy political forces. Anderson’s America is one of snake oil, sinister influences and men with an all-corrupting will to power.
"Phantom Thread" (2017)
Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a designer of exclusive dresses with a low tolerance for minor irritations. “If breakfast isn’t right,” his sister observes, “it’s very hard for him to recover for the rest of the day.” At first, it seems that Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps), whom he picks up from a seaside cafe, will, like many before her, fall short of his romantic specifications — and prey to his baroque cruelty. Yet she proves his equal in unexpected ways. “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose,” she murmurs, a coded sign of things to come.
“[T]his most sardonically scatological of romantic comedies,” as Nayman describes it, is perhaps Anderson’s most beguiling movie — another psychological cold war, but this time in England and with the manners of a Henry James novel. “Phantom Thread” finds Anderson dominant over exciting new territory, demonstrating, as with his other period pieces, a singular genius for historical texture. With it, he raised his game again.