Brow Beat

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Anima Is a Silent Comedy About Thom Yorke Trying to Return a Lunchbox

Thom Yorke at a subway turnstile, looking puzzled.
Screenshot

Anima, the 15-minute short film made by Paul Thomas Anderson to promote Thom Yorke’s new album of the same name, begins about how you’d expect from Radiohead’s master of giggles: in a quasi-dystopian setting, this one a subway car filled with people in monochromatic coveralls, nodding off as they’re carried toward a day of unspecified but undoubtedly soul-destroying work. But then something unexpected happens. It gets funny.

Not at first, of course. First comes the desolate beauty of daily existence, the moment when the commuters’ dozy head-nods turn into Damien Jalet’s choreography, set to the blips and whooshes of Yorke’s “Not the News.” Yorke exchanges meaningful glances with a woman on the train (Dajana Roncione), but before he can make his move, the car pulls into the station and she’s out the door, disappearing into the crowd. But wait! What’s this? The lady has left behind her lunchbox, and no one else seems to have noticed. Thom Yorke to the rescue!

As Yorke chases after the mystery lady, Anima—which is now available on Netflix and in select Imax theaters—turns from a pensive comment on dehumanization into something approaching a silent comedy. (No wonder the announcement heralding the film’s existence insisted on referring to it as a “one-reeler,” a term that dates back to the earliest days of theatrical exhibition.) Yorke tries to make his way up an escalator, haplessly trying to catch the woman’s attention, and once he’s at the top, he’s confronted by a pair of turnstiles that he can’t seem to navigate, even as the line of impatient workers grows behind him. Throw a bowler hat over Yorke’s man-bun and a 1920s audience would be rolling in the aisles.

Thom Yorke tries to get through a turnstile and fails.
GIF by Slate

From there, Anima shifts both shape and sound, incorporating two more Yorke songs, “Traffic” and “Dawn Chorus,” as he continues his pursuit through what looks like an underwater parking garage, across a tilting stage, and eventually to an above-ground trolley car, where the commute goes on but at least the view is better. But it’s the image of Yorke thwacking into that turnstile, the moment when he’s willing to make himself look silly in service of a larger point, that keeps coming back to me.

Also she gets her lunchbox back.