Most of the people I have spoken to about Inherent Vice have told me that it is the most confusing and difficult to follow film they’ve ever watched. But most of them enjoyed it. One or two couldn’t quite stomach the convoluted plot, murmured fast-paced dialogue, or the plain weirdness of some scenes. I myself have watched the film at least four times, sometimes under the excuse of showing it to friends, but mostly because it poses an enigma that I haven’t managed to ignore. Unlike many enigmatic films, Inherent Vice often seems as if it should be comprehensible. There is a narrative (or rather, many narratives) and one feels it (they) should be understood. I’ve concluded that the film offers an answer to a simple but interesting question: can a confusing film represent something about confusion?
Inherent Vice answers with a resounding yes. The film, an adaptation of an equally bizarre Thomas Pynchon novel, centers around Larry “Doc” Sportello, a private detective who after an encounter with an ex-girlfriend (Shasta-Fay) sets off to unravel a mystery that seems to become more, rather than less, complicated. In the first and most comfortingly coherent scene, Shasta-Fay introduces a plot to have Mickey Wolfman, with whom she is having an affair, committed to a “looney bin” orchestrated by his wife and her lover. After both Shasta and Wolfman’s disappearance Doc sets out on a paranoia-fuelled mission of discovery which slowly reveals fragments of a conspiracy linked to a drug cartel connected to both a cult and a drug rehabilitation centre (the vertical integration of the drug trade). Amidst this convoluted plot, Doc, brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, provides a centre of humour, desire, and goodwill in what is otherwise a bleak portrait of 1970’s American society. The setting shouldn’t be overlooked, not only because it provides the justification for the film’s confusing mode of address, but because its execution is nostalgic without veering into over-sentimentality. It combines the psychedelic malaise of the era’s drug mania with satirical portraits of an oppressive police force, a corrupt relationship between the private and political sector, and a whole range of hippie-hating, repressed, power-hungry individuals, most triumphantly portrayed by Josh Brolin as Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen.
The soundtrack, most notably in Jonny Greenwood’s atmospheric score, flows across scenes creating a current of fluidity in an otherwise fluctuating and contradictory world. The scenes, largely based around dialogue, provide another oasis of sense in the nonsensical world. They play out for long stretches often uninterrupted by cuts or elaborate camera movements, opting instead to allow the characters and their conversations to provide their own interest beyond the interest of the narrative. And finally, this brings us to the answer of why the film works. A narrative as difficult to follow as Inherent Vice’s seem haphazard and unintentional, but it isn’t. It has the function of situating us with the protagonist who, as we gather from his notebook scrawl, is often as confused as we are. In this way, the film connects us with the experience of that confusion only just grounded by a good understanding of the social context of the time. Both Doc and the audience are tasked with the same mission: to make some sense out of the array of disparate and bizarre experiences. As the film progresses the narrative becomes less important and the centre of meaning in the film becomes the characters, specifically Doc. By the end of the film, I was left with the sense that despite the film’s obvious interest in a period and place it is most essentially involved with the broken world of a man with a broken heart.
The fact that Inherent Vice is one of the most confusing films to arrive in mainstream American film in the last few years is not a great achievement, it’s not even particularly difficult. What is, is the film’s ability to create a world that is convincing for the very fact that it doesn’t make any sense, but feels like it should. As with all good films, the proofs in the watching. Despite, or because of its narrative, Inherent Vice, is fun to watch. And this is why, for the most part, viewers have found it to be the most confusing movie they have ever enjoyed.