There’s a miraculous little cinematic moment in Inherent Vice where a group of hippies/cult members at a hideaway house gather to sit for pizza at a long table. A photographer captures them at just the moment where their blocking mimics DaVinci’s The Last Supper.
There may or may not be a great deal of significance in this (a topic for another post perhaps), but the moment does highlight a motif the film uses heavily–acts of communion–to underline the relationships between characters, especially noticeable and important with Joaquin Phoenix’s Larry “Doc” Sportello and Josh Brolin’s Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen.
Spoilers ahoy! Although the plot is hardly the point of Inherent Vice, consider yourself warned.
Thomas Foster, in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, says of acts of communion:
Here’s the thing to remember about communions of all kinds: in the real world, breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace, since if you’re breaking bread you’re not breaking heads. One generally invites one’s friends to dinner, unless one is trying to get on the good side of enemies or employers.
And what’s true in reading literature is often also true in reading movies.
In fact, the relationship between Doc and Bigfoot largely develops through scenes where one or more of them is eating. In the first few scenes between them, both at the police headquarters and in Bigfoot’s car, Brolin is continually eating a phallic-shaped food–one time it’s a chocolate-covered banana, the other it’s a grape popsicle. The camera draws loads of attention to the sexual nature of his eating. In the car scene, Phoenix’s Doc stares openly in utter amazement at the suggestiveness of Brolin’s behavior with the food. It’s funny, to be sure, but what does it tell us about their relationship?
In these early scenes between them, Bigfoot is attempting to establish his power over Doc, accentuating his masculinity to do so. The phallic nature of the food and thus the connection to Bigfoot’s own manhood is emphasized. It’s an ironic sort of emphasis, however, because later Bigfoot’s masculinity is pulled out from under him in a scene where his wife hen-pecks him and yells at Doc over the phone for bullying Bigfoot. But during these early scenes, Bigfoot wants Doc to see him as a big, tough cop, and that means all the trappings of hyper-masculinity: strength, power, violence, and emotional distance and stoicism. Furthermore, he wants to highlight to Doc that the two of them are not on the same side. Bigfoot is the Authority, and Doc is the Criminal.
Later, as Doc gets information that is useful to Bigfoot, their relationship, and thus their acts of communion change. As Doc decides to let Bigfoot in on some of the intelligence he’s gathered in his investigations, he has breakfast with Bigfoot. Again, Bigfoot is showing off his false-masculinity by aggressively attempting to get more pancakes from the chef in the back. Doc, once again, is confused and somewhat bemused by Bigfoot’s insistence on this manly show of power. But once Doc reveals the info, Bigfoot begins to soften towards Doc, and by the end of their food-centered meeting, it seems like Bigfoot and Doc might be on the same side of this criminal syndicate-conspiracy mess.
But that’s not what Bigfoot’s thinking. He’s still stuck on being the victor in this story, and to do so, he needs a victim, or rather a patsy. Doc’s body language in the scene is towards Bigfoot, but Bigfoot sits forward and doesn’t return the eye contact. Doc thinks Bigfoot is playing on his team, but instead Bigfoot leads him into multiple traps, using him as bait to pull off his own vengeance for the death of his partner. Doc makes it out of the mess just fine with some quick thinking and accurate shooting which leads to the final and best act of communion between them.
In the not-quite-closing scene and the emotional climax of the film, Doc is back in his cottage by the sea, smoking a joint and relaxing. Bigfoot literally kicks down the door and breaks each window in it as he enters the living room. Doc is sure Bigfoot is there to arrest or assault him, or both, and has an open expression of wariness and fear. Bigfoot towers over him, since Doc sits on the floor looking up at him. Bigfoot has never appeared more intimidating, but this is the moment of true communion. Rather than becoming violent with Doc, as is originally implied in the scene, Bigfoot stoically grabs the joint from Doc’s hand and puts it in his mouth. It would be enough if he smoked it, like two men sharing a peace pipe, but, instead, he eats it. Upping the ante, he then grabs a handful of the loose marijuana on Doc’s table and shoves that in his mouth, chewing the dried leaves in an over-exaggerated way. Doc’s confusion has boiled over. His mouth hangs open and he has tears in his eyes. This is the act of communion that expresses the apology Bigfoot partially gets out regarding the trap he sent Doc into…twice. It is also a recognition of the act of good Doc has done him in helping him get some vengeance for his partner’s death. Finally, it shows that, in this moment, they are together, on the same side. Bigfoot’s masculine posturing breaks down, along with his straight-arrow image. In this moment, he’s allowing the hippie peace and love crack through his hard shell. It won’t last past his exit, but in the moment it is powerful.
Thus, through multiple acts of communion, Paul Thomas Anderson accentuates the changing relationship between Doc and Bigfoot, going from antagonists, to false teammates, to true comrades in arms.