From the Archives: Inherent Vice

Originally posted 2015 | Review by Eoin Moore

Inherent Vice is a neo-noir comedy from Paul Thomas Anderson based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, following a trail of corruption and debauchery through L.A. in the early 70s. The dying breaths of 60s optimism hang over the film’s world; the potheads, dopers, and weirdos are exhausted as the decade-long party comes to an end, fearing the cynical morning that is to come. “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), is one such dopehead and a private eye, who becomes embroiled in the disappearance of an eccentric real-estate mogul when an old love strolls back into his life. Doc goes toe to toe with neo-Nazis, quacks, junky dentists, heroin smugglers, and hippie-hating Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) in his journey to discover the mystery at the heart of this sun-soaked web of crime, sleaze, and deceit.

And that mystery is… uh… hmm. I think the FBI were involved? Wait, no, it all comes back to the Nazis. There’s also a cult involved, somehow. And some guy called Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) who everyone thinks is dead but is actually working as a snitch. Wait, shit, wasn’t he also some kind of communist? Or maybe that was someone else.


Incoherence and convolution are fundamental aspects of Inherent Vice. Rather than fitting together like pieces in one great, understandable puzzle, the intricacies of the criminal underworld, judicial shadiness, and big money dealings sort of just accumulate. Doc drifts in a marijuana haze from location to location and perp to perp, witnessing much but connecting very little. It’s impossible to be sure whether any particular incident or revelation has any bearing on the greater mystery; it’s hard to be sure at times what that mystery even is. Doc is clueless for the most part, and the people involved in this enigmatic conspiracy are so drugged up that not even they seem to understand it all.

The confusions and non resolutions pass by Anderson’s camera at a lazy pace. The film’s two and a half hour runtime offsets any expectations of typical narrative structure; past a certain point it feels like the film could come to a halt at any moment. The best option is to, like Doc, stay mellow about the whole thing: sit back and let the ups and downs and complications come and go as they please, without worrying if and how it’ll all add up. Once those concerns are abandoned, the film becomes a delight to watch. The film is gorgeously shot, with the diverse pallet of the early 70s presented in a sun-bleached, faded light, hinting at the vibrancy that’s slowly been drained out of the world. There’s a deadpan absurdity underlying the whole experience; things never veer towards seriousness without being undercut by visual gags or plain oddness.

The film’s best feature is its combination of fantastic performances and a brilliant script. Most of the dialogue is extracted straight from Pynchon, delivered in a downbeat unassuming style typical of Anderson. Phoenix in particular is noteworthy, offering a mumbly, dazed delivery in stark contrast with Pynhchon’s breakneck quips and bubbly oddness. Josh Brolin is perfect as the too-square-to-live Bigfoot Bjornsen, mixing an offbeat weirdness into his righteously anti-degenerate demeanour; it’s rare to come across the phrase “hippie scum” delivered with such authentic, unironic vitriol. Musician Joanna Newsom also offers a nice turn as Sortilège, the pot-smoking mystic who serves as the film’s narrator.

Anyone who comes to Inherent Vice looking for a by-the-books mystery with a satisfying conclusion is in for a bad trip. At one point near the film’s finale, Doc attempts to construct a sensical map for all the weird shit he has experienced thus far. Scrawled on his wall in pencil, the collected names and their fuzzy relationships leave Doc, and this reviewer, in complete bafflement. But the value of Inherent Vice isn’t the kind that translates too well to charts. Pynchon’s work has always mocked typical story structure, and Anderson faithfully recreates this inherent idiosyncrasy to a tee. The finale is surprisingly satisfying; a few questions are answered and a plot or two is tied off. This isn’t much by noir standards, and a viewer who walks in expecting that may feel short-changed. However, if you can embrace the vagueness and uncertainty as a core part of the Inherent Vice experience, conveying the beginning of the great hangover that was the 1970s, the film makes for a wonderful and unusual addition to Anderson’s varied, bizarre, and ever-enjoyable body of work. 

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