The washed-out PI, the dame in distress, the convoluted case. It would be understandable if one wrote off Inherent Vice as a paint-by-the-numbers neo-noir. But it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.
For one, the film meanders in and out of these drug-induced hazes. A lot of scenes feel slightly skewed and the pacing is lackadaisical. It’s a low-key kindred spirit to The Big Lebowski. When PI Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) has his old flame, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), show up in his house it’s not clear if she’s actually there or simply a phantom of his past.
The film’s treatment of the past is one of the way it distinguishes itself from most noir. While film noirs often deal with pasts of bitterness, regret, and pain, Doc looks back with his time with Shasta with a deep yearning. It’s unclear if she’s actually returned to him flesh and blood or is simply his marijuana induced fantasy for a return to happier times.
However, if there’s a noir it is heavily inspired by, it’s probably The Big Sleep, a film so complicated and convoluted that truth and fiction become inseparable and by the end of it the whole thing is a tangled mess. Inherent Vice is occasionally incoherent, but unlike characters that trudge on through it, Doc gives up and simply looks for the way he can salvage something out of a incomprehensible situation.
Therefore, most of the film pivots around the relationships Doc has with other characters and how those relationships resolve. The best relationship is the one he has with Bigfoot, a lieutenant in the police force who constantly lashes out as Doc who takes it all in stride. It’s exposed that Bigfoot resents Doc, resents the freedom and lack of responsibilities he has, resents his ability to follow his own moral compass instead of being shackled to the chains of the law.
The acting is what sells this relationship. Josh Brolin is as good as he’s ever been here with this constantly seething hatred that spews out of his mouth like a dragon. This is played perfectly against Joaquin Phoenix’s devil-may-care attitude. Similar to Phoenix’s relationship with the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in The Master, Brolin’s character is consumed with a self-loathing admiration of what the Phoenix character represents.
And Doc as a character represents the antithesis of a lot of noir leads. He’s got a caring and warm side he’s not afraid to show. There’s a sense that he can walk through all this hurt, pain, and evil and come out of it a better man than before. He learns and grows through the experience, he accepts the world he faces and looks to better it.
There’s a scene late in the film where the narrator explains what the term inherent vice means. It’s coverage for anything unavoidable. In a lot of ways, Doc is the inherent vice of the film, coverage for all the unavoidable things that break along the way. He’s an outlet for self-hatred, a chance for a family to reconnect, an opportunity to fan the flames of love, or simply a ride out of a bad party. He’s there to cover the unavoidable. Well, that and smoke a couple of joints.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing