Alfred Hitchcock is famous for many things. One of them is an unconventional shot sequence that he utilized throughout his career to create instant mystery in a scene. Rather than following the traditional pattern of establishing shot, immediate setting, individual, and detail shot to take the audience into a scene, the “Master of Suspense” would begin with the detail shot and work out slowly. This forced the audience to ask questions about what they were seeing rather than understanding from the get-go how all the pieces fit together. Details and characters divorced from context on screen remain mysterious. The plot of a movie full of these kinds of shots would be practically impenetrable no matter how many details or clues the film gives the audience.
Inherent Vice is that kind of film. Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest is full of close-ups, details, and clues, and it rarely puts them in context with each other. Add to this the drug-addled point-of-view of the film’s protagonist, a perpetually stoned private investigator played hilariously by Joaquin Phoenix, a point-of-view prone to hallucinations and paranoia, and you’ve got yourself a heavy duty discombobulate. Inherent Vice is a mystery, it remains a mystery, and that may just be the point.
But that is not all the film is about, and the editing style isn’t the only Hitchockian overture. Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, this is a movie about a man haunted by a woman, and cinematographer Robert Elswit’s tinted images and Jonny Greenwood’s Herrmann-esque score are there to wrap this puzzle of a film in Vertigo’s more familiar, dreamy, obsessive atmosphere. Sure, the dominant colors are orange and blue instead green and red, and the score isn’t only Herrmann-inspired—thankfully, Greenwood’s referents vary much more than, say, Zimmer’s did for Interstellar—but the overall emotional effect is the same.
And it’s the emotions that matter here much more than the plot. The only part of this story that does make sense, the only resolution you’re going to find, is relational. Whatever the meaninglessness of the world, people who love other people seem to have some sort of advantage in the end, and their endings might just be happy if the “stars align” just right. Romance is front and center, but other relationships, especially friendship, fare well as well.
True to Inherent Vice’s conspiracy-laden 1970s setting, the only thing that stands in the way of those happy endings is a determination to make sense of a world that is full of hints of conspiracy and yet ultimately meaningless. Doc and his acquaintances need to let go. When you start looking for conspiracy, you start to see it everywhere. Even innocent pizza dinners start to look like Last Suppers. That visual gag is one of my favorites in a film full of gags—really, Inherent Vice is hilarious—because it insinuates that even spirituality, that other hippie staple alongside illicit substances, can become an ill-advised pursuit of sense in a world devoid of it.
Life doesn’t always make sense, man. Accept it, and love the one you’re with while you can. You never know when he or she might disappear. That’s not the whole story of the cosmos, but it’s certainly part of it, and it’s a part worth keeping in mind when life spirals out of control.
You might also find these reviews of Inherent Vice helpful:
David Moore’s reflection on the film for Reel Spirituality
Larsen on Film