I’ve always been fairly neutral on auteur darling Paul Thomas Anderson. Oh sure, There Will be Blood was pure greatness spread across a crusty kaiser roll; but as longtime readers will remember, I found The Master (or at least, the second half) about as boring as watching paint dry, and without even the fun of any fumes to inhale. So the announcement of a new PT Anderson flick itself doesn’t get my blood running. But Inherent Vice looked fun and entertaining from the trailers, with a strong cast and Anderson’s to-be-expected excellent visual presentation. All of which the film delivered, but rather than merely the wild caper its trailers may have made it out to be, Inherent Vice is also one of the more tightly packed, intelligent, beguiling crime films I’ve seen in a while – a true blue Neo Noir the likes of which hasn’t been seen on screens in years.

Inherent Vice posterJoaquin Phoenix plays Doc Sportello, a drug addled private eye in 1970s LA who gets thrown into an ever-deepening labyrinth of crime and corruption when his old flame, Shasta, reappears out of the blue in classic noir fashion. It’s probably been said somewhere that it’s only really noir if the whole thing is kicked off by some leggy dame, who’s nuthin’ but trouble, crossing the hero’s doorstep, and Inherent Vice sticks to that rule. Shasta’s arrival drops Doc into an intensely convoluted criminal conspiracy involving drug smugglers, real estate moguls, police corruption and all that other fun neo-noir fare, with a heavy does of pot-fuelled paranoia to keep things even more interesting.

It’s that convoluted storyline that I think will keep Inherent Vice at arms length for a lot of people, or at least the film’s unwillingless to offer the audience any help in keeping up. Like Beyond the Black Rainbow last week, and Drug War beyond that, Inherent Vice will not offer you any aid in keeping up with the vast conspiracy you’re thrown into. Let your attention wander and you’re bound to miss at least five pieces of crucial information, and God help you if you go for a pee-break. And even just paying attention isn’t enough. There’s a lot of double-speak, implication, and conclusions reached by the characters in the film that aren’t always spelled out in plain English for the audience. I’m not sure how much of this comes from Anderson and the screenwriter intentionally, and how much is that old “adapted from a book” problem where you feel like you’re missing a vital piece or two of the picture if you haven’t read the book in advance. But either way Inherent Vice isn’t what you’d call a “casual” movie. Pay attention, think and maybe you’ll be able to keep up. Maybe.

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But even if you get lost, you can at least still enjoy the dynamite performances and visuals. I was bracing myself for Phoenix to go a bit too Johnny Depp, reducing his performance as Doc to a collection of affectations, ticks, one-liners and pratfalls. But while those are all there, he doesn’t let Doc become a caricature. There’s always the sense that there’s more lurking under the surface, and with a performance like this that’s a tricky thing to pull off. Josh Brolin is a deadpan powerhouse, often delivering some of the film’s most memorable lines (I want my “Motto Panecaku!” shirt), and the rotating cast of walk-ons all do fine, even if a lot of them only get one or two scenes tops.

Anderson, as fans have come to expect from him, comes through on his rep for visually breathtaking movies. The framing, camera movements, and general formal qualities are all strong. The image has this nice washed out quality on top of what must have been very colorful sets and costumes, making the film look almost like a comic book left out in the sun or something. There’s also this nice trend of long takes, but not attention grabbing long takes. More the kind that demands that the actors keep on top of their game and keeps the attention without being distracting.

Like a lot, if not all, of Anderson’s movies, I don’t think Inherent Vice is for everyone. But in a film culture that often seems to baby its audience, catering to as many demographics as possible, and treating the audience with kid gloves, it’s refreshing to see a film that dares to demand its audience to pay attention, think, and make connections themselves, rather than watch as the film spells them out. For people willing to acquiesce to this demand, Inherent Vice can be an incredibly rewarding experience if you manage to tease out what’s going on, which admittedly can be pretty damn tricky. I have a feeling I won’t totally “get” it until I’ve seen it at least one or two more times. But even if you can’t quite follow every minutia of the plot, the atmosphere, performances and humor are all more than enough to keep you entertained.

David Fincher’s new movie Gone Girl is an experience. Say what you will about its qualities as a piece of film art. But, if nothing else, the experience of sitting down in a darkened theatre and taking in Fincher’s dark, sometimes funny, and often profoundly messed up flick about marriage and relationships was, for me, one of the most affecting, involved, and flabbergasting experiences of all this year.

On paper, Gone Girl looks like a dime novel thriller. It’s the story of a man, whose beautiful and charming wife is kidnapped. Her disappearance becomes a massive media event, throwing scrutiny on their not-so-happy marriage and casting him as the prime suspect. But rather than being seen as a hero, Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) innocence in this whole rigmarole is continually undermined, not just to the media and public, but to the audience of the film, leading to an exercise in suspense and mystery, in which the audience literally doesn’t know who to trust.

Gone Girl posterOk, so let’s get the formal stuff out of the way first. As we have come to expect from a craftsman like Fincher, Gone Girl is beautifully shot and edited, about as broody and dark as we’ve come to expect from the Se7en director, just under-lit enough to make the everything feel slightly sinister, and accompanied by a thumping minimalist score by Fincher’s frequent collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. All of the cast knocks it out of the park, with Rosamund Pike’s Amy, the missing wife, delivering a performance that will probably enrage a lot of people when it gets passed over at next year’s Oscars. The supporting cast are full of standouts, with a possibly career re-defining turn from Neil Patrick Harris and a shockingly good but understated supporting performance by Tyler Perry. The one who may get passed over a lot, unfortunately, is Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister. It’s not one of the “in your face good” performances in the flick, which may lead to a lot of people not noticing that she’s seriously good, especially given that this is her first film role ever.

As for Affleck? He’s good. Not amazing, not terrible, but good. He pulls of what he needed to pull of, and, if nothing else, the fact that I wasn’t thinking “So you gonna be a good Batman?” every time he was on screen is proof enough that he did a good job.

For virtually the entire second half of the screening, my mouth was ajar. As you may have heard, Gone Girl, like a novelty drinking straw, or my small intestine, is a wee bit twisty. Virtually every 20 minutes or so there’s some new twist, some new shocking development, something that completely throws you off from where you think this is all going, to the point that by the halfway mark I’d completely given up trying to make predictions and just sat there in gobsmacked awe, completely going along for the ride. I could almost see David Fincher perched above the screen, a puckish grin on his face as he lobbed the occasional flashbang grenade into the audience, mouthing the words “Oh what, were you getting complacent? Bored even? Well, let’s change that!” And then there’s a soft thud on the floor next to me and suddenly my ear drums are bleeding.

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And of course it’s all ridiculous – a collection of twists and turns that would make Gone Girl a laughable soap opera of a movie in the hands of any other director. But because it was Fincher at the helm, stringing you along with expertly maintained tension and suspense, it’s an incredibly engrossing experience. This is in no small part because it spends almost the entire second act walking an absolute razor’s edge between being credible and incredible, constantly teetering on the edge of being completely and utterly ridiculous. And then it does a backflip, a pirouette and a handstand on that edge, just to show off how much it can be silly without breaking its hold on you.

It’s a rollercoaster, a spinning teacup of twists and turns that leaves you disoriented and a bit nauseous. The only point at which it really let me down was in the ending, which is the kind of ending where the credits suddenly roll and all you can do is let out a little, deflated “Oh.” It’s not a bad ending, but it comes out of nowhere, sneaking up on you. It’s anticlimactic, but that’s not the problem. It’s meant to be anticlimactic. But I think it’s rather the wrong sort of anticlimactic, a bit too deflating and not nearly sinister and chilling enough as it could have been.

Gone Girl is a pretty darn good movie. Eminently well-made, fantastically acted and masterfully suspenseful. But its true value, I think, is the experience it leaves you with upon first viewing. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie this year that engrossed me this much, that kept me this on the edge of my seat, even when a part of my brain was going, “This is ridiculous, this is utterly ridiculous” while another bit went, “Shut up, will you, I wanna see where this goes!!” And if you can’t appreciate it for that, you can appreciate it for being a deeply layered meditation on relationships and manipulation, a searing take down of the news media (particularly ones named for a certain small, red member of the Canidae family) and a seriously well made and acted thriller.