Doc Sportello is a Real Human Being and a Real Hero

Sorry to break your leather jacket clad hearts, but other than the title this article will not reference Drive.

The first few times I watched Inherent Vice (2014, Paul Thomas Anderson) I thought Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) was a static character without an arc. Which is totally fine. Films can tell a compelling story two ways (broad strokes here): they can either be about someone going through a significant change (point A to point B) or they can be about someone refusing or failing to change while under enormous pressure. I assumed that Doc and Inherent Vice fell into the second category. Detective movies in particular aren’t well known for their detectives changing – they are more often vehicles for plot than for character.

Inherent Vice has so much plot with so many complications it is easy to assume it doesn’t bother having character arcs. But that’d be missing what may be PTA’s most optimistic and impressive character arc ever.

I could spend a whole article trying to untangle the plot of Inherent Vice (which, seriously, between PTA and Pynchon is intentionally convoluted and confusing). But I’ll instead focus on the moments where Sportello reveals himself.

The basic mystery of Inherent Vice is “where the hell is Shasta Fay?”. Shasta is Doc’s one time girlfriend, and he still is clearly pining after her even though he insists he is not. In the beginning of the movie she visits Doc on the DL and tells him she and her new BF, Mickey Wolfmann, are deep in trouble. The next day, both Shasta and Wolfmann go MIA.

Since he’s not over her, Doc tries to track her down, assumedly with the intention of winning her back. Doc begins his investigation with purely selfish motivation – which doesn’t make him a bad guy by any stretch of the imagination, just someone looking out for Doc and only Doc. This ostensibly sets up the parameters of the film, and a potential arc for Doc that would conclude with him winning back Shasta Fay.

But we’re told that Doc isn’t like that. He is an inherently good guy, if you’ll forgive the word usage, and though he appears to be acting selfishly – he certainly is in the moment – we get the sense there are more layers to who he is, even if he’s not currently acting upon them.

As Doc investigates the disappearance of Shasta Fay he stumbles upon the increasingly complex and multifaceted crime syndicate called The Golden Fang. The Golden Fang has their fingers in ever expanding arenas (drugs, government, rehab, dentistry) and it’s enough to make the audience’s and Doc’s head spin.

Doc’s ability to piece together the specifics of the case may be limited, but his unlimited heart is on display the whole film. Doc is forced to constantly deal with his misanthropic foil at the police, Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) who shares an antagonistic relationship with Doc. Doc never hates Bigfoot, though, and they are seen sharing tips throughout the film. It seems antithetic that they’d continue in the same sphere, but their hatred for cops and hippies (respectively) is overpowered by their dedication to do good. Doc never forgets the human under the cop uniform, and he discovers that Bigfoot is a little cagey only because he lost his partner a few years back.

Doc also stumbles onto the Harlingtons, who have become embroiled in the police in association with the Golden Fang. Coy Harlington (Owen Wilson, earning his pay with a fun performance) is so worried for his family’s safety that he has faked his death and gone into hiding. His wife and daughter just want him back.

Just as the pieces start to come together, the film rips the initial conflict out from under Doc.  Shasta Fay returns of her own volition. She was never missing, just onboard the Golden Fang’s ship (also of her own volition). The investigation was for naught, and what’s more he seems interested in Doc again. Doc doesn’t need to solve the case. His goal has been accomplished. Doc could easily walk away. Easily.

But he doesn’t.

Thinking about it, maybe Inherent Vice does fall into the second category. Maybe Doc doesn’t change throughout the movie but instead reveals his true nature to the viewer. We first judge Doc as selfish because he starts the investigation for selfish reasons, but while investigating he discovers people (Coy, Bigfoot) who need his help. He is unable to tear himself away from them, even when his original solely selfish goals have been realized.

There is a great scene, after Shasta Fay has returned, where Doc sits with Sortilège (Joanna Newsom playing Doc’s conscious and the movie’s narrator). She turns to him and says: “put it this way.  What’s going to nag at you in the middle of the night?” Doc’s eyes fill with tears and he lists a few of Coy’s traits before deciding, clearly: “no one should ever go through their life without seeing their daughter. That don’t sit well with me.”

It’s a powerful scene. Doc could get up, walk away, and lose nothing. Gain his own personal safety, probably. But he’s too good a guy. It will nag him at night, because it don’t sit well with him. So without any horses in the race, he jumps back in.

Doc discovers that Bigfoot’s partner was knocked off, a cop on cop ordered hit with a mobster pulling the trigger. Because Doc is many things but not a great “planner”, he goes to confront the mobster alone. Bigfoot arrives and the two of them make sure that the mobster sees justice.

While leaving the scene Bigfoot sets up Doc with a big shipment of drugs that the Golden Fang wants. Doc goes to meet a lawyer speaking on the gang’s behalf. The lawyer offers Doc a huge sum of money for the drugs’ safe return. Doc turns him down. He says the only thing he wants is for Coy to be given his freedom and never be bothered again, so that he can return to his family.

It’s a powerful conclusion. Doc may be hypocritical, he may be a stoner, and he may not be all there in the head. His lifestyle may be a sham. But Doc, whatever he is, is an unrelentingly good guy. In a final confrontation Bigfoot and Doc discuss their different lifestyles. Bigfoot is a straight-laced cop. Doc is a crazy hippie. Why should they have anything in common? Why should they be in each other’s spheres at all?

It is because (though they never say it) they recognize in each other a profound sense of right and wrong, and a legitimate dedication to doing the right thing. That is a difficult thing to find in humans, because often what is right is the difficult selfless choice. Bigfoot has discovered that the system has failed him, that the cops themselves ordered the death of his partner. But the goodness of one man made things right. Bigfoot admires the shit out of Doc for adhering to his moral compass through and through – systems may be corrupt, hippies may not be perfect, but when stripped of both those things individual virtue shines through.

It’s not a shame that the movie is so complicated (it’s an exciting and challenging detective story) but it is a shame that it turned so many people away from it scratching their heads and throwing up their hands. Because the message of a man who is compelled to help others regardless of the personal cost is a story of a true hero.


Movies – Sam retitled this article with the reference to Drive as a joke, but in all honesty that movie is also a movie that has a character I believe is static, who also adheres to his own strict code of morals. Give it a watch and let me know what you think!

Books – I’ve never read the original Inherent Vice, but I enjoyed the Pynchon I read, so maybe go give it a read! I know it’s on my list.

4 thoughts on “Doc Sportello is a Real Human Being and a Real Hero

  1. I liked the film. But it’s problem was that it was so darn dry and unexciting. It didn’t make me care up until the last 20 minutes of the film. Those first two hours could have been a whole lot more electric given the source material, but also given that Anderson is about slow burning somber pictures, I guess he couldn’t really do it any other way. At the same time, that’s still not true as Boogie Nights felt like it was directed by Scorsese or Tarantino but was PTA. I feel like that need of pacing and staccato would have made this film a whole lot more enjoyable as a general experience. But it’s not, it’s slow and dry until we get to the 20 minute mark.


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