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Movie Review: 'Phantom Thread'

The director Ernst Lubitsch said, “Any good movie is filled with secrets. If a director doesn’t leave anything unsaid, it’s a lousy movie.” It’s a good bet, then, that Lubitsch would have loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, Phantom Thread, where what’s left unsaid is weaponized and turned into the artillery of a smoldering power struggle.

Reynolds Woodcock is a master dressmaker catering to the very high society, who has a habit of taking up with young women and then growing irritated with them and having his sister unceremoniously dump them. He has a pervasive need for control, and especially to control women, on whom he perpetrates deep psychological violence. All except for his sister, whom he seems to revere as his equal, or maybe even his superior.

And then one day Woodcock meets Alma, a waitress at a country inn, and she becomes his new muse. It’s clear from the start that he wants to control her entire being, but though Alma goes along with much of it, at her heart, she’s not quite so easily corralled.

Still, much of the turmoil plays out below the surface. Woodcock is explosive but also deeply passive-aggressive—he has no idea how to deal with actual confrontation. The power dynamics of toast at breakfast have never seemed quite so stark. And Alma, who genuinely loves Woodcock, also knows exactly how to push his buttons, and finds her own secret way to bring the two of them to a bizarre kind of détente.

Anderson’s film is darkly funny, but also confounding, elegant, lush and intricately detailed. One of Woodcock’s quirks is that he sews secrets into his work—objects into the canvas of his suits, short phrases into the hems of his dresses. Without a doubt, Anderson has sewn his own secrets into Phantom Thread. Not everyone will see what we uncover in the same way, not every meaning becomes clear, but the result is gorgeous, provocative, and mesmerizing.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.