This article goes into detail about the plot, so there are major spoilers.
“Inherent vice in a maritime insurance policy is anything that you can’t avoid.” narrates Joanna Newsom’s Sortilège,“Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters, and Doc wondered what that meant when it applied to ex-old ladies.”
In terms of Larry “Doc” Sportello’s (Joaquin Phoenix) byzantine story of missing persons and seedy crime syndicates of 1970s Los Angeles, the inherent vice to which Sortilège refers is the inevitable, unavoidable deterioration of his relationship with Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) as well as his connection to their recreationally carefree period of the 1960s. One is presumed missing, the other inevitably disappearing, and Doc struggles to overcome his bereavement that, in time, both will be lost for good.
To jump in at the deep end, I posit that while Shasta is visible in the film, she’s merely a symptom of Doc’s decaying psyche than a corporeal character. The film opens with a brief foreword from Sortilège as she gets us caught up with the immediacy of Doc’s story by telling us – in no specific terms – where Shasta has been: “Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had.”, following that up with an aural description of her appearance both old and new:“Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish Tshirt. Tonight, she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.” Picking out a single moment of that introduction – the “back then” of which she’s talking about is the 1960s: a time where Doc and Shasta’s love was blooming; playfully running through rain-sodden streets to score drugs, partying where they can find it, and living the culturally diverse life of hippie. “Tonight” – where the story starts – she enters Doc’s home, altered appearance and all, in order to distance herself from – or to fit in with – the desires and lifestyle of real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), her new lover, of whom she is convinced is at threat from being falsely committed to an insane asylum. Her look – “flatland gear and short hair” – screams 1970s bland trophy wife: the complete antithesis of the 1960s style she effortlessly, seductively epitomised. For all intents and purposes, in this scene, Shasta’s 1960s persona is dead.
Where Inherent Vice veers more into the realm of fantastical manifestations of a drug-induced mind, it’s during the second – and last non-flashback – appearance of Shasta in Doc’s present day investigations that she’s wearing the exact floral bikini and faded tee that Doc had been so fond of. This reproduction of a preferred memory, and her subservient yet empowering sexuality indicates that, not only were the 60s dead, but so was she. These deceptive flights of fancy are often very evident, for example, Doc’s yelp at Hope Harlingen’s (Jena Malone) personal photography is comically absurd, as is the slap he receives from Clancy Charlock (Michelle Sinclair) in his office. It’s even evident in the ludicrous confrontation with Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen as he busts down the door of Doc’s rickety shack, scoffing weed and vocally mimicking as he crunches glass under his feet and grass in his teeth. These scenes, though ridiculous by design, are a clear demonstration of Doc’s fervent imagination, further purporting the notion that Shasta, in her flower-bottom bikini, no longer exist.
Come the time of the final scene – Shasta back in Doc’s arms as they drive through blanket fog together – she tells him that being together is “almost like being underwater. The world, everything gone someplace else.” As with most character statements, showy or otherwise, this has multiple meanings, one of which harks back to the implied death of her person at the hands of the drug smuggling operation known as The Golden Fang (which in itself has multiple meanings). Chances are, Shasta was killed after discovering Sloane Wolfmann’s (Serena Scott Thomas) conspiracy to have her husband institutionalised, so “almost like being underwater” could be a very literal – and very final – statement. After all, Shasta was known to have been “precious cargo that couldn’t be insured”, which suggests that she was at the mercy of something entirely avoidable, but unfortunately inevitable.
In their post-coital agreement, Doc and Shasta question the nature of what inherent vice actually means, and sadly, through the eyes of Doc, neither of them knew. This potentially hallucinatory sexual encounter is immediately followed by this exchange:
Shasta: “This doesn’t mean we’re back together”
Doc: “‘Course not”
These lines are mirrored throughout the film in the actions of others: people’s true relationships becoming text, and – aside from Hope and Coy’s (Luke Wilson) heatfelt reunion (in what is conceivably the only real case that Doc takes on) is also echoed verbally in the last minute of the film:
Doc: “This doesn’t mean we’re back together”
Shasta: “‘Course not”
The fact that both allow themselves a turn to say this is telling of their relationship, but it also tells of the larger picture: Doc has, in many ways, overcome his grief at the death of Shasta and the death of the 60s.
Perhaps the whole film is a dreamy haze of a stoner: Doc latching onto past memories, remembering truths and creating untruths, unconscious and confused to what’s going on around him, most clearly: the 1970s. Though admittedly this is a bigger leap than what I’ve spoken about, it may be that none of his investigations take place in real time. It’s one theory that I’ll be scrutinising on my next viewing to see if it holds water, but one that, considering how much there is to take within the film’s core text, I’m content with being wrong. In Sortilège’s description (as well as legitimate archival science) ‘inherent vice’ is the deterioration of objects or things by unavoidable forces: the degradation in quality due to the components of which they are made. A decade comes and goes, a relationship flourishes and falters, and – in relation to Shasta – involvement in something bigger than oneself can end in unavoidable, uninsurable collateral damage, even death.
Inherent Vice is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most brazenly obtuse piece of work, something that many people crisitcised (though, these are the very same that blamed The Master for being stale), but is what gives this magnificently loopy plot so much to look for. This review/analysis barely scratches the surface of each of these stories: I didn’t even delve into Bigfoot’s repressed beatnik past/homosexual present, Coy’s literal motifs and physical embodiments of resurrection, and Doc’s curiously expository relationship with ancillary lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro). Indeed, many of these scenes could be entirely within Doc’s deteriorating mind, and maybe it’s this that was the true “precious cargo that couldn’t be insured”. Things break, and perhaps it was grief that broke it.
What makes Inherent Vice such a total joy to watch – even still on this fourth time – is that these theories could be entirely incorrect, and yet, with open interpretation, they make perfect sense. It’s a film which practically screams at you to watch it multiple times (Edgar Wright beat hundreds of quick-thinkers to the punch by entitling it “Inherent Twice”), as the first viewing can (and probably will) leave you with a hazy whiplash. Both Anderson’s screenplay and Thomas Pynchon’s novel are deliberately elliptic: a lurching confusion that runs in conjunction with Doc’s vocal inability to grasp his sudden workload, so it’s only by scanning these multifaceted scenes and provocative conversations that you can begin to unravel the mystery of Shasta Fay Hepworth, Coy Harling, The Golden Fang, and the steady decay of both time and memory. It’s a fantastic, meticulously crafted addition to the pantheon of period cinema: an adaptation that couldn’t have been made by anyone other than the peerless Paul Thomas Anderson. And that alone makes it worth revisiting time and time again.