Director Paul Thomas Anderson has written some of the most fascinatingly flawed male characters in cinema. They possess qualities of dominance, insecurity, and a heaping dose of toxicity. PTA writes complicated, disrupted men. Every bit of convoluted emotion is stretched into hours of interpretation. Audiences come to know these men on an intimate level, especially when given further dimension by actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Joaquin Phoenix, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Often in PTA movies, we witness these men fall apart right in front of our eyes. These characters of perceived power are usually losing their cool in front of everyone. But Anderson never really boxes these characters in. In his films, we see the various sides of male virulence. And, in some cases, the women in their lives who maintain a sense of control; the real masters. In this video essay from The Discarded Image, PTA’s toxic men are the subject.
PTA isn’t a filmmaker who uses caricatures of the poisoned man as a singular tool. The director sees these subjects as opportunities to delve into a discernible human experience. These characters are fleshed out. They don’t act on their own accord for unknowable reasons. What makes PTA’s men exciting case studies are their past and current internal struggles. As the video essay covers, some interpreted his latest, “Phantom Thread,” to be a celebration of the noxious man. While that’s a valid take, Reynolds Woodcock, a name ripe with masculinity, is pulled apart by Alma throughout the film. One can argue the film is the deconstruction of the haunted, difficult genius trope; a dressing down of such a person.
The craving for control and power is a quality that makes these character experiences feel more human. And the filmmaker is quite remarkable in writing universal commentary into his unique stories. Whether it’s slipping into madness or losing control, PTA’s men bear complexities that go beyond their label. We get the pleasure of watching these characters’ stories, rich with complicated emotions and experience, play out on screen.