The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

Stoner Noir: Inherent Vice On Drugs

So there’s Doc – perpetually stoned, and more than a little out of his element. 

Like a Lebowski with a day job, Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello triangulates the whereabouts of his ex old lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth, through the Los Angeles of 1970 in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hazy, mystery through the past, Inherent Vice (2014). Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s serpentine novel of the same name, Doc’s daytime profession as a private investigator, and indeed most of his personal and spiritual philosophy, is informed by frequent entrées into altered states of consciousness. 

Be it cocaine, laughing gas, or tequila zombies, Doc’s most complex case yet finds him stumbling through a myriad of slurring substances, and colorful characters in Anderson’s Oscar nominated screenplay. 

Doc’s drug of choice however, like many California hippies, is, and always has been, grass.

Throughout his quest for love and missing persons, Doc is constantly smoking pot either as a means of personal recreation, or to otherwise enhance his subconscious, investigative prowess. His preferred method: the joint. Hand-rolled with thoughtful consideration, and easily summoned at a moment’s notice.

In this SPOILER-FILLED piece, we’ll look at each scene of weed smoking that happens in the film and calculate just how high Doc gets. Finally answering the question of, “How High Is Doc?”, or, “What’s Up, Doc?


The very first scene of the film (while not featuring much in the way of drug-use) finds Doc reclined in between psycho-chemical states at his beach house at twilight. As he stares out at the fading sunset, Shasta appears in his doorway out of the blue, and, perhaps, out from his own mind.

Thinks he’s hallucinating . . .”, Shasta says to him. A statement that epitomizes her familiarity with Doc’s frequent flights of fancy, and also, in the context of her homecoming, forms a symmetry with very literal and physical flights that Shasta takes from their relationship. Stoned or otherwise, Doc naturally has trouble adjusting to Shasta’s sudden appearance after an unstated period of time, hence his spaced out gawking. He’s still not sure he isn’t hallucinating yet, a judgement he’ll have to make throughout the film that is first announced in this opening scene.

As Shasta reveals her fears about her missing boyfriend, land developer Mickey Wolfmann, Doc’s as disarmed as he is motivated to help an old friend – the drugs ain’t got nothing to do with it.


After being told “change your hair, change your life” (and not to mention his encounter with his ex), Doc finds himself at home, curlers in his hair, doing what he does best: smoking pot and watching TV. He’s thinking about Shasta, and decides to call his Aunt Reet for advice.

This is the very first scene of onscreen pot smoking that occurs thus far, and it happens in the same moment that introduces the Nazis that creep around the perimeter of this California story. Doc, meanwhile, is flying through outer space, trying to figure out how Shasta fits into all this. 

After the phone call with his Aunt, in Anderson’s first bit of hallucinatory cinema so far, Doc’s TV begins talking to him. A symptom of the drugs, and also his intangible bond with the person onscreen: LAPD Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen in bad hippie makeup. 

Bigfoot’s breaking of the 4th wall in this scene is also his introduction to the audience, lending a mystical dimension to the story that will bend, and sometimes break, all reality of a given scene to suit the characters’ psychological states.


On suspicion of murdering Mickey Wolfmann’s bodyguard – Glen Charlock – Bigfoot arrests Doc, but releases him when a lack of evidence surfaces. At home, Doc tries to unwind when he gets a call from Bigfoot, who informs and teases him about Shasta’s sudden, inexplicable disappearance. 

Frustrated and unable to do much else, Doc writes Shasta’s name on a rolling paper and smokes a joint to her safety. In a stunning, drug-addled moment of expressionism, the film double-exposes Doc with Shasta. An image that invokes the convergence of parallel moments, memories, and fantasies, instigated by the karmic properties of the dedicated joint. 

Sortilege’s voiceover narration, a vestige of the highly prosaic source material, underscores Doc’s anxiety about things lost or things ending:

Does it ever end? Of course it does. It did.


Sidebar! A brief diversion from the drugs to highlight a funny scene that indicts the efficacy of Doc’s life strategy, while also asking questions that the people (read: writers like me) want to know!

As a favor to Shasta, Doc asks his current flame – Deputy DA Penny Kimball – for help locating information on Mickey Wolfmann’s whereabouts. Doc only smokes a cigarette during this scene, but the conversation inevitably steers towards his drug habit.

Doc: I’m only a light smoker.

Penny: How many joints have you had today?

Doc: I’ll have to check the log book?

Penny: Forget?

Brilliant. Penny has trouble respecting Doc in a professional capacity given his hippie exterior, but it’s that same resentment that endears her to him romantically as well. His freedom, a true virtue in contrast to the phony bureaucracy of the Justice Department she works for.


After another day of being rudely interrogated by overreaching law enforcement, Doc smokes weed in the gyno stirrups of his medical office. It lends another funny image of Joaquin Phoenix in an exposed position, and precipitates the next seismic plot shift.

Doc’s receptionist, Petunia (Anderson’s wife, Maya Rudolph), calls Doc out of his office with a secret note from Jade (Hong Chau), the chick planet massage therapist from earlier in the film.

Having just left his hotboxed office, Doc is absolutely ripped as he reads Jade’s message. Consequently, Anderson layers an ominous music cue with a voiceover narration from Jade reading the note instead of Doc, expressing the competing boundaries of storytelling power in this film. 

Sortilege is still the primary narrator, but in moments like this one however, the break from narrative pattern is an intention to highlight the psychoactive effects the drug is having on the scene. 


From the haze of Doc’s office, the film dissolves into the fog of the San Pedro harbor outside Club Asiatique. After speaking briefly with Jade, a new but familiar face emerges from the evening fog: the presumed dead Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson).

Coy Harlingen is wanted by many parties: the police, The Golden Fang, but most importantly by his family, wife Hope and daughter Amethyst. Hope had contacted Doc for his services in order to look for Coy, but in a neat reversal, here’s Coy looking for Doc.

With possible “unfriendly eyes” watching, Coy splits a joint with Doc as a way of staying incognito amidst a sea of covert operators and observers. In this way, the consumption of the drugs is a sort of condition of the job. A means of access, and camouflage. 

The “asian indica” they smoke mixes with the foggy atmosphere of the marina, and the criss-crossing lines of the plot. By the end of the conversation, Coy has slunk away, as if dissolving back into the smoky atmosphere from whence he came. There, and then suddenly, not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Following his tequila zombie lunch with marine lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro), Doc learns that the boat Shasta was last seen boarding has now disappeared – whereabouts “not known”.

In triplicate, Anderson shows us a shot of this missing vessel – also named “The Golden Fang” – a shot of Shasta, and then a shot of Doc with his binoculars pointed out the window. He scans the horizon looking for any sign of The Golden Fang – the boat, or otherwise.

Knowing Doc is under the influence obfuscates the source of this sort of imagery. Is this a parallel cut showing Shasta in the same moment? A memory from a previous time? An imagined vision? Does it exist at all? And where on earth is that red light coming from? 

The construction of this moment is key to the film, underscoring Shasta’s presence in Doc’s life and the plot, which is rapidly blossoming into a greater beast than previously thought.


 

Caption: (L-r) JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Larry “Doc” Sportello and REESE WITHERSPOON as Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and IAC Films’ “INHERENT VICE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Wilson Webb

Lonely and overwhelmed by a rapidly complicating case, Doc calls his girlfriend Penny Kimball to see if she’d like to come visit the beach. 

Cut to: Doc and Penny, post-coitus, in the living room. On TV, the news reports on a graduate student radical that was arrested that Doc recognizes as Coy Harlingen. 

Doc rolls a joint with casual indifference to the news, letting Penny reveal Coy’s identity as a police informant. Doc tries to get more information, but a stoned and uninhibited Penny instead blurts out, “Do you love me?”

The scene ends here, but it again highlights the misdirection of drugs that is crucial to the story. Doc blithely attempting his version of an interrogation while rolling a joint, is what allows him to withdraw this key bit of information from Penny.


Following an eerie visit with Coy Harlingen at a party in Topanga Canyon, Doc chats with Jade about the Golden Fang when dropping her off at home in San Pedro. He’s smoking the end of a joint when he asks why he should be afraid of a boat. 

Just as the THC is flowing through him, Jade reveals to Doc that The Golden Fang is not just a boat, it’s a drug cartel that launders money through Chick Planet massage.

Another bend in this twisty narrative trip that Doc takes in stride, never showing any exasperation at all the impossibly connected plot points and characters.


With a seemingly unmetered access to laughing gas, Doc gets high and giggles to himself in his office. He’s nowhere closer to finding Shasta, Mickey Wolfmann, or the Golden Fang that might be keeping the both of them. Enter Clancy Charlock, sister of Mickey’s late bodyguard Glen, who comes looking for information on Glen’s killer. Doc has nothing to offer, except an inhale on the laughing gas mask, equalizing their psycho-chemical states.

Ever the diplomat, Doc presses Clancy further about Glen (and the Golden Fang he worked for) by offering a joint; they smoke and they chat. Clancy reveals Mickey’s plan to give away all his money, but the most remarkable moment comes during an intrusive jump cut as the joint is passed between her and Doc. A cut that interrupts sequential continuity of the scene, but perfectly mimics the creeping high of the substances currently mixing around inside their bodies.


Coming home that night from the office, Doc finds he had a visitor while he was gone. Taped to his front door is a postcard from Shasta, sending Doc into a trip greater than any drug could. 

In the most tender moment of the entire film, perhaps Anderson’s entire filmography, Shasta’s postcard takes Doc back to the time “with the ouija board” (call it a weed-jee board). 

A drought of drugs was beginning to have tangible effects on good intentioned hippies everywhere. Doc and Shasta consult a ouija board to see if the spirits will tell them where they can score dope. First a phone number, then an address sends Doc and Shasta running through the rain looking for their next high. 

That Neil Young song carries them to an empty plot of land (shot on location in downtown Pomona), but no weed is ever found, no source of the mysterious answering machine that gave them the address. Doc and Shasta laugh to themselves, barefoot in the rain, realizing how silly this plan was all along. As Sortilege puts it in her narration: “Everyone was desperate, and suffering lapses of judgment”. 

The entwinement of the hallucinatory and the supernatural in this scene gives as much insight into Doc’s relationship to his weed smoking as it does his relationship to Shasta. For many, the physiological effects of drugs have a way of distorting one’s thinking, but if you’re Doc, it’s a way of reaching a certain kind of nirvana that you otherwise could not. A way of accessing sense memories that have otherwise atrophied. 


Doc returns to the scene in the rain from Shasta’s postcard, but this time he’s prepared. He smokes a joint walking up the same sidewalk he did with Shasta to find the once empty, fenced off piece of land has now been turned into a golden-fang shaped, modernist tower. Funny coincidence. He cranes his neck upwards, trying to see the very top of the high building, the camera hardly able to contain it all in one frame.

Doc knows his next clue will be in this building. Shasta wouldn’t have mentioned this moment otherwise. He consults with his right hand man Denis for backup, but Denis, stoned as well, thinks it’s better if he go look for a pizza. Even at the end of this joint, Doc feels confident enough to tackle the Golden Fang solo.


Inside the Golden Fang shaped building, Doc meets Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd D.D.S., who happily obliges Doc with an offering of high quality, pharmaceutical cocaine. 

The introduction of this drug further distorts the scene logic. The score from Jonny Greenwood in this scene (appropriately titled “The Golden Fang” on the soundtrack) is melancholy and ambient, but, with its minor-key notes, gives the impression of danger as well.

Before leaving Blatnoyd’s office, Doc and Blatnoyd rush to the desk to snort a few more lines for the road. As they do, the film speed changes, giving the impression of Blatnoyd and Doc moving in fast motion – like in an overcranked silent movie projection

It happens for a few brief seconds, but the effect is clear. By the next scene, as Doc drives away with Blatnoyd, Denis, and Japonica, their paranoia has skyrocketed. A residual side effect of the drug that interrupts Doc’s investigation more than his weed smoking could. 


Over an hour into the movie, Doc finally sits down with all the evidence he’s accumulated thus far, and attempts to diagram it all in the above scene. It’s in this same scene that Bigfoot calls to inform Doc of Rudy Blatnoyd’s apparent homicide.

Doc’s ability to bridge the connections between these seemingly unrelated plot threads is augmented by the psychoactive effects of the joint he smokes. Whereas others (like the LAPD), have no interest, nor the capacity to investigate such goose chases in this way, Doc belongs to an obsolete group of gumshoe do-gooders for whom no case is too small, no person(s) above suspicion.


In an echo of a scene from the beginning of the film, Doc is again stoned on his couch watching Bigfoot on TV. Instead of a hippie, this time Bigfoot plays a police officer on an actual TV show from the era, Adam-12 (1968-1975). Doc isn’t smoking, but is clearly under the influence, this time around scrutinizing Bigfoot without him breaking the fourth wall in return.

It’s at this moment that Doc has another trip – or is it real? Shasta Fay returns, out of the blue again (and apparently under some spell of her own). The trance-like sex scene that follows is teased out with another joint shared between Doc and Shasta, unifying their mental and physiological states. The Mickey Wolfmann plot, all but abandoned for this indulgence in another brief moment with Shasta.

But Shasta again reminds him, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.


Back to the case. 

Doc pays another visit to Penny at the DA’s office in downtown, this time looking for information on one Adrian Prussia. While he goes through the city’s sealed file on Prussia, Doc casually smokes a joint, relying on the privacy that Penny has promised him to keep from being discovered.

The more Doc reads, and the more he smokes, the more the puzzle pieces begin to fall together. As in the cocaine scene with Rudy Blatnoyd, the film speed again changes, giving the impression of Doc’s accelerating mind and the plot running out of control. Even Sortilege’s comforting narration reaches a breaking point as she reacts to the LAPD’s endorsement of the for-hire killings.

Doc is mortified, but compelled to act. He has to find Prussia.


In Adrian Prussia’s office, Puck Beaverton offers Doc a joint while he asks about detective Vincent Indelicado. It’s in this moment that Doc’s vice catches up with him. His inability to refuse grass, even from a Nazi, leads to his incapacitation via PCP. 

The film fades to black as Doc falls to the ground. The weaponization of drugs in this scene goes part and parcel with the thematic decay of hippie culture and the American Promise. In Inherent Vice, bad trips become reality.


After a suspenseful escape from Puck Beaverton and Adrian Prussia, Doc has but one final plot loop to close in this sprawling narrative. In exchange for their stolen heroin back (and absolute silence), The Golden Fang promises to release Coy Harlingen from his obligations to them, allowing him to return safely back home to Hope and Amethyst.

Doc and Denis smoke in the car outside a shopping mall, while waiting for the exchange with the Golden Fang. The joke here is in the image of Doc, the dirty hippie, contrasted next to the squeaky clean brady bunch family pushing drugs for the Golden Fang. 

Doc finishes off the last bit of his joint as he double checks the trunk to make sure no heroin is left behind. He closes the trunk and drives away, the day again saved by hard work and dumb luck. 


What better way to unwind after this entire saga than to spark up a joint in the comfort of your own home? Doc appears to be just beginning his ritual when Bigfoot kicks his front door down. Already succumbing to the drug’s effect, Doc makes no attempt to stop him or voice concern.

In this scene, the roles of Doc and Bigfoot finally converge with the assistance of the marijuana. After demanding a hit of Doc’s joint, Bigfoot and Doc apologize to each other at the exact same moment, using the exact same words verbatim.

The occupation of this metaphysical space by the both of them suggest an alignment of their identities in this moment, and elaborately concludes the pairs spiritual journey so far in the film. Each sees a little more of each other in themselves. 

Then Bigfoot does this. . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In another reality bending flourish, Bigfoot exits the scene after eating Doc’s joint, and then his entire plate of weed. Doc is left stupefied, yet concerned. Bigfoot denies Doc’s offer of brotherhood, but Doc insists Bigfoot still needs a keeper. 

This is the final moment of onscreen weed smoking in the film, bringing the total number of scenes to fifteen. Fifteen joints, fifteen trips, fifteen scenes of absolute psychedelia.


There is no smoking in the final scene of the film, but in Doc’s paranoid eyes and Shasta’s glazed expression, it’s clear that the two are riding out some sort of high together.

A joint hallucination, or a one sided one?  Haziness is deployed here in twofold: first as an integral compositional element, then as a summary of the narrative. Hallucination or otherwise, if it means being with Shasta, then why not spark up another joint?