Review: Sydney (1996)

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Paul Thomas Anderson hid this gem from me for far too long!

Written By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson

I am a Paul Thomas Anderson fan, I will not hide that fact. I love his writing style and I love the aesthetic he applies to his films. Now that I have finally gotten around to Sydney I cam honestly say I have seen every Paul Thomas Anderson film. The impulse is to think of Sydney in terms of a director’s virginal effort, but I must fight that impulse. It shouldn’t matter whether this is Anderson’s first film or his last film, what matters is that what he puts on the screen is a taut and highly compelling tale with enough visual verve to fill out two more movies.

Before I get into any of my concrete thoughts on Sydney, I’m going to regale you with one of my out there interpretations. If you don’t know already, I like to call these my Skjerva moments, dedicated to a certain Filmspotter, and nice guy, who has the ability to find allegory and meaning in films that baffle even me. For Sydney my Skjerva moment is of a biblical nature. Even with the twist I couldn’t help but think of The Bible as I made my way through the feature. Sydney, the character, is a god like figure. He meets troubled and lost individuals, and he shepherds them from the pits of a wayward life into something better. Or in the case of some, he destroys them because god is a being filled with wraith. I’m sure most people think my interpretation is far too wacky, but I found the biblical connection right away and it added immensely to the film for me.

As we move into the more universal aspects of Sydney, you shouldn’t read beyond this point if you don’t want to be spoiled. I will be talking about a significant twist in the film, so ye be warned.

Right off the bat I couldn’t help but notice the PTA signatures. Long tracking shots punctuated by moments of silence, brilliant musical cues, and the story coming together in ebbs and flows are all present. PTA has an aesthetic that I adore, and though his first film he already knew what he wanted to do with the look and feel of his film and he hits the aesthetic out of the park.

The actual twist is fantastic, I didn’t see it coming, but maybe I’m just stupid. The beauty of the twist is that it doesn’t really change anything. It changes the possible motivations of Sydney, but it doesn’t change the relationships formed. When something is as genuine as the relationship between Sydney and John no twist can change that. It may change the relationship in the minds of those characters, but we can look from the outside-in and see the whole picture and realize that their relationship can’t be changed, it is that strong. Sydney may have killed John’s father and that may have been his primary motivation in forming their relationship, but it doesn’t factor into the reality of their relationship.

Sadly, it is not redundant for me to highlight the acting of Philip Baker Hall and John C. Reilly. It’s less so the case with Reilly, but for some reason or another Hall has never gained much acclaim as an actor. He has put in a career of wonderful performances, and yet he remains largely unknown as an actor. In the end that matters naught, because he gave the world Sydney and this performance goes down as one of the best of all time. Every movement is measured, every breath is drawn for a specific purpose, just like the film, Sydney is cool and collected in a taut manner.

Sydney doesn’t have the same moments of greatness that Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love and Boogie Nights do. Those movies are all great, yet they fall short of Sydney because while there parts are amazing they don’t quite add up to the fulfilling whole that is Sydney. In every way possible Sydney is PTA’s most complete film, if not his most rich. It’s tense and layered atmosphere will snare you along with the well developed and interesting characters. Sydney isn’t just a great feature debut from a great director, it’s a great film period.

Rating:

****

Cheers,
Bill

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3 responses to “Review: Sydney (1996)

  1. I like minimalist movies and Paul Thomas Anderson and I love John C. Reilly, so this one’s a must-see for me.

  2. The film elasticates credulity somewhat. Sydney, by-chance outside a highway diner, just happens upon John, the son of a man he ‘took out’ earlier in life. The odds of that? Although, perhaps i’m short-changing the allegorical nature of the tale.

  3. Meredith – It’s definitely worth checking out.

    Beanz – I think you are short changing the allegorical nature of the tale, as well as overlooking the major themes of circumstance and chance encounters that permeate all of PTA’s work. Magnolia may have been his magnum opus on those themes, but I have found that they run through all of his movies in some form or shape.

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