How Josh Brolin Stole Inherent Vice

Movies Features Paul Thomas Anderson
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How Josh Brolin Stole <i>Inherent Vice</i>

Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen’s entrance is impressive. He’s flanked on all sides by a brigade of L.A.’s finest, an interlocking row of cars and men bordering the shot’s horizon line from either end of the frame. They’ve swarmed the homicide crime scene at which poor private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello has been planted as a hapless scapegoat, his habitually marijuana-clogged brain enough justification to pin a clear target on his back. Bigfoot, nearly indistinguishable from the street cops beside him at this distance from the camera, leans against one of the cop cars with the kind of smug self-assuredness that signals he’s got the man that he was always looking for, if not the man who actually perpetrated the crime. Because Doc and Bigfoot go back. Way back. Which is why the latter greets the former—who has only just returned to consciousness, finding himself reclined next to the dead body of the man he was searching for—with a less-than-professional “Congratulations hippie scum, and welcome to a world of inconvenience.”

But this wasn’t Bigfoot’s official introduction in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice. No, that came just a few scenes prior, when Bigfoot could be seen on Doc’s television screen while Doc permed his hair and rolled a joint. Bigfoot himself had sported a comical afro wig and donned the sort of attire worn by those whom he has grown accustomed to harassing with no probable cause other than showing a little “peace, love and understanding.” You see, on the side, flat-topped “hippie-hating mad dog” Detective Bigfoot is a member of the Screen Actors Guild. He picks up bit parts as extras in TV shows and commercials, carving out his own little niche in the world of entertainment that he spends most of his days patrolling to maintain law and order. The first time we see him, he’s the hippie caricature spokesman advertising retail tycoon Mickey Wolfmann’s Channel View Estates, already undercutting the image of straight-world presentability that he’d rather we have as our first impression. Before we’ve even met Bigfoot Bjornsen, we understand that he’s something of a joke.

Among an ensemble cast populated by a who’s who of A-listers—each, in their own way, perfectly filling roles lovingly adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel—Josh Brolin stands out in Inherent Vice. He’s the law-abiding foil to Joaquin Phoenix’s spacy stoner private eye, but the relationship between the two men is complicated, long-standing and purposefully vague. It’s a relationship that’s constantly changing. Sometimes, they’re a couple of old friends who like to razz each other; sometimes, they’re collaborative colleagues; other times, they’re the stereotypical hippie/cop adversaries. And other times, Bigfoot is planting heroin on Doc.

But the latter becomes embroiled in a labyrinthine plot to involuntarily commit a real estate mogul to a mental rehab facility. It’s a paranoid investigation in a narrative which delicately toes the line of magical realism, revealing an untold number of plot thread tributaries that all, through mere coincidence (or not?), feed their way back to one Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), the Golden Fang drug enterprise and Doc’s ex-old lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Along the way, Bigfoot Bjornsen’s more official, LAPD involvement with the case coasts alongside Doc’s. His natural skepticism of Doc’s drug-addled sleuthing abilities is constantly in humorous internal conflict with his reluctant acceptance that Doc is, against all odds, a pretty good detective.

Brolin’s casting plays effortlessly off the roles that have already defined the actor’s largely dramatic filmography. Deadly serious, macho tough guy characters in films like Sicario, True Grit, Oldboy, No Country For Old Men, Dune and, of course, as Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, make up the bulk of Brolin’s prolific career. And while such roles are undoubtedly nonhomogenous, rare comedy spots like the Coens’ Hail, Caesar! or David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster don’t allow him to reach the cartoonish heights granted to a character like Bigfoot Bjornsen. Enter Inherent Vice, a twisty comic noir that positions Brolin in a role not unlike his past ones, but one that mines their untapped potential. Through Brolin, Bigfoot moves with a bulky, domineering physicality that lends itself to subdued yet ingenious physical comedy (any time Bigfoot puts his head in his fists, for one). He’s an arrogant blowhard simmering with machismo—the kind of role that Brolin, on face value alone, is born to fill, but one that Brolin embodies in a histrionic way simultaneously played totally straight and also, at times, in on the joke.

Or, at least, Brolin is in on the joke. Because Bigfoot’s self-seriousness tends to eat itself into parody just by virtue of the nature of his character, which is where most of the humor comes in. Still, Bigfoot’s complacency at his own perceived confidence and competence over Doc lends itself to moments of absurd behavior, like passionately deepthroating a chocolate-covered banana in front of Doc, and using his hands to mimic a penis going inside a vagina as if he were a teenage boy. “Do you think that Glen and Shasta were…F-U-C-K-I-N-Ging?” Bigfoot inquires of his licensed PI nemesis. Not once does he break eye contact with Doc as he mimes coitus crudely with his fingers, while grilling Doc about the case and holding him needlessly under suspicion of murder. “…Fuckinging?” Doc blurts out in response, bewildered. It’s instances like these, coupled with his minor showbiz dalliances, that also display the cracks in Bigfoot’s tough guy façade. Such aspects to his personality reveal him to be not so dissimilar from the same sort of weirdo outsider that Doc is. As it goes with most overexaggerated displays of masculinity, so too do Bigfoot’s signal a large degree of overcompensation.

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This duality allows Bigfoot to avoid simply being a one-note, meathead caricature, giving Brolin a character who’s not just funny but, arguably, the most complex. In this same vein, Doc and Bigfoot are engaged in a perpetual pissing contest, one where the other is checking on the size of the other one’s dick out of the corner of his eye as they straddle their respective urinals. This is, in a way, slightly literal too. As with other films in Anderson’s oeuvre, it’s a male relationship not without its homoerotic flourishes, like the aforementioned banana blowjob, or Bigfoot phoning up Doc late at night at his home (he does this on more than one occasion) to tease him about the MIA status of Shasta Fay. When Doc says, “Fuck you” and hangs up, Bigfoot unfurls a little smirk across his face that mirrors one a young boy might sport after taunting the girl he has a crush on. Bigfoot is constantly seeking out Doc for one contrived reason or another, ever wanting to play it off as if Doc is twisting his arm—as if Doc is really the thorn in his side that he claims. But it’s more like Bigfoot just wants to talk to him. Bigfoot’s malice towards Doc, his eagerness to bring him in on whatever unfounded charge, is almost a bit too enthusiastic.

Or perhaps Bigfoot just needs a friend, as Doc so astutely gleans under his own unending haze of marijuana. Brolin gets the funniest dialogue (“Motto panukeiku!” he instructs repeatedly to the restaurant workers at the Japanese spot he frequents because of the “respect” they grant him; something that he’s desperate for) and gives the funniest performance in a film where nearly every character gets at least one chance to knock the wind out of you with a single line-read. But he’s also, fundamentally, the most broken. His sardonic veil of sneering self-satisfaction amounts to window dressing, and becomes more amusing than intimidating. It means to hide the fact that, deep down, Bigfoot doesn’t take himself seriously.

The film’s best, most baffling and also weirdly affecting sequence happens towards the end, the investigation having since been tied up as neatly as an investigation like this one can be. As Bigfoot has become known by Doc to do, he drops in on his old frenemy by kicking down his front door, crashing Doc’s peaceful smoke sesh. After a brief conversation, Bigfoot decides to act in complete opposition to everything he stands for and takes a drag of that dreaded grass rolled up neatly in Doc’s palm. In what is quite possibly a hallucination on Doc’s part—but also, quite possibly isn’t— the two men are suddenly speaking the same words in perfect unison. Then Bigfoot pops the joint into his mouth like a piece of candy, eats it and proceeds to tip Doc’s tray of loose weed to his chin and pour it all down his throat.

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With tears welling in his eyes, Doc asks his flatfoot counterpart, “Are you ok, brother?”

“I’m not your brother,” Bigfoot retorts, with weed crumbles hanging from his lips.

“No, but you could use a keeper.”

And Doc, the likeable, well-connected, easy-going stoner, is not without his intermittent compadres, but is very much alone. Maybe it’s friendship or respect or a little something more, but both men are magnetized to one another in a largely unhealthy way—like a toxic romance that never ends—in no small part out of loneliness. The aforementioned absurd scene highlights the dueling wolves that occupy the space inside Bigfoot Bjornsen—an eternal weirdo fruitlessly shackled to a world that requires he close off part of himself, manifesting in uncanny outbursts. It’s hard to not comprehend that some of Bigfoot’s animosity towards Doc and the hippie culture at large is born of jealousy, as he’s forced to watch the slacker PI reject the world of squares that he’s taken up permanent residence in, while Doc lives out the bohemian lifestyle that a little part of him craves.

Maybe that’s the main reason why Brolin slides so seamlessly into Bigfoot’s shoes—that lifelong feeling of being an outsider. As much as the actor appears to encapsulate the archetypal vision of a jock, he’s expressed sentiments of always having aligned himself more with misfits. “I’m the opposite of how I look,” he explained in a 2014 interview with Deadline. Brolin’s deadpan delivery is conveyed with precision skill, but the masterful Bigfoot Bjornsen comes from more than just the image of him sliding phallic-shaped food down his throat. Everyone in Inherent Vice is a bit of a freak, but Bigfoot is the only one who’s got the whole world fooled.


Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.