Starring a superb Daniel Day-Lewis in what may be his final role, Phantom Thread unpicks the world of a fastidious couturier in glorious style. Meanwhile, Den of Thieves offers more than two hours of macho posturing from Gerard Butler
Phantom Thread (15) *****
Den of Thieves (15) **
If Daniel Day-Lewis is genuinely going to make good on his recent retirement announcement, he couldn’t have picked a better swansong than Phantom Thread. Along with his There Will Be Blood writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, he has made an event movie for cineastes, the sort of intricate, beautifully layered work of art that makes a virtue of its inherent strangeness and serves as a testament to its own high-minded ambitions while proving as deliciously sinister and compelling as any Hitchcock mystery.
Set in London in the 1950s, the film stars Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a fastidious and cerebrated couturier whose dominance of the fashion world may soon be drawing to a close in an era of made-to-order chicness. A man of rigorous routine, his closest confident is his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, wonderfully prickly), whom he entrusts as a sort of gatekeeper for his life. Cyril lets his clientele, his admirers, even the women he shares his life with get close enough to boost his ego, but not so close as to encroach on his all encompassing work. When they do, his sister is the one charged with dispatching them, usually with one of his dresses as a consolation prize.
As the film opens, Cyril is instructed to do just that by Reynolds, who takes himself off to the countryside to recover. There, to his surprise, he promptly falls for Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young waitress of German extraction working at the provincial hotel in which he’s chosen to have breakfast. At first she seems like an innocent ingenue, all too ready to submit to a renowned artist in whose admiring glow she can’t help but bask. Charmed by her evident beauty and apparent clumsiness, he proceeds to flirt outrageously, demonstrating his enormous appetite in both a literal and symbolic sense by placing an elaborate breakfast order that he impishly requests she commit to memory. She responds with coquettish alacrity to his advances, accepting a dinner invitation with her “hungry boy” and readily adopting the recently vacated position of in-house muse as he fusses over her slender figure and marvels at what she considers her flat-chested imperfections.
But as she moves into his London abode, a battle of wills ensues almost immediately, with breakfast – and mealtimes in general – repeatedly becoming the prime battlegrounds. Alma’s crunching of toast, clanking of butter knives and pouring of tea can’t help but raise the hackles of Reynolds, a man whose irritation at the lingering disruption caused by an unasked-for cup of tea is, thanks to Day-Lewis’s quietly seething performance, absurdly, almost comically, intense. Alma is warned repeatedly by Cyril to respect her brother’s routines, and yet, in a wonderful display of childlike impudence, Alma refuses to play by the Woodcocks’ rules, as if intuitively sensing in Reynolds’s behaviour an unspoken invitation to spar with him. He might occasionally tell her off the way a father might his bratty young child, but she continues to prod and provoke him, which in due course encourages Cyril to subtly re-assert her own power over her brother.
Though this sets the scene for an intense rivalry between Cyril and Alma, this never goes in quite the direction one might expect, evolving instead into a strange and complex alliance as Reynolds is gradually brought to heel. And it’s here that the relationship between all three becomes more twisted and more intriguing. Phantom Thread might initially come across as another film about an artist whose obsessive pursuit of aesthetic perfection has given him the entitled air of a sadist, but deep down Reynolds is more of a masochist and, as he comes to understand this, his mood is often one of bemusement. As he bumps up against Cyril and Alma, especially Alma, he’s forced to confront the fact that he’s a spoiled child who doesn’t just want and need the indulgences of those around him, he needs, indeed craves, the type of parentally-minded disciplinarian who can pacify even the naughtiest child by reducing them to a helpless foetal state of sulkiness following a tantrum.
Appropriately, the film presents artistic creation as a symphonic tantrum in its own right, something intensified by regular collaborator Jonny Greenwood’s near constant score, which creates a propulsive rhythm through use of orchestration that’s both lush and flinty. The end result is an incredible, brilliantly acted portrait of a destructive relationship in which the destructive parts might be what make it thrive. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs – a metaphor the film makes literal in the most outrageously twisted way.
With Den of Thieves, Gerard Butler fronts his most unintentionally homoerotic film since donning his Speedos for 300. Cast a surly, bad-ass, toss-out-the-rule-book LA cop, his character is so obsessed with nailing the criminal mastermind behind a recent spate of bank robberies (played by Pablo Schreiber), he stalks him in restaurants, sleeps with his stripper girlfriend and, in one of the more bizarre scenes, indulges in a shooting competition with him at a firing range. The subtext is practically text, but instead of embracing it,
the film persists in indulging in all
the try-hard macho-posturing one might expect from a ropey Michael Mann knock-off. At well over two hours, it’s tedious stuff, and the elaborate, drawn-out bank robbery plot doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially when it tries to pull off a final twist straight out of The Usual Suspects.