Oh sure, we've got Paul Thomas Anderson all figured out by now. After four very fine films -- Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love -- we've surely got the filmmaker's number by now: He makes strangely sweet and slyly witty ensemble pieces, right? So then what's he doing making an adaptation of Upton Sinclair's massive tome Oil!? A straight-faced period piece in which the most recognizable names are Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano? This is not what we've come to expect from good ol' Paul T. Anderson!
And I suppose that's what makes the director's There Will Be Blood such a stunning surprise. It's more than a "departure" for the director; it's a monumental display of "evolution" that'll wow the established fans and impress a helluva lot more new ones. This is a dark, compelling and effortlessly engrossing film, one bolstered by a lead performance that ranks among the very best of Mr. Day-Lewis' impressive career.
The film will most often be compared to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, so I guess I can get the ball rolling on that particular crutch -- but it's also an apt comparison. Which is not to say that There Will Be Blood will necessarily be dissected and revered 75 years from now, but the stories are certainly similar enough. Anderson's film opens with a long passage of dialog-free footage: A lone man hacks his way through a mine using a pick-ax and some dynamite. The year is 1898, and Daniel Plainview is about to become an oil man. We witness the man's unwavering resolve as he pulls himself from a vertical shaft after breaking his leg in a fall -- and if you think that accomplishment displayed some tenacity ... just wait.
The 160-minute film covers Plainview's journey from rock-scratcher to oil tycoon as it runs over the course of 29 years. And while it might come as no surprise to learn that Plainview loses more of his soul with every package of professional success, the way in which this potentially predictable story unfolds is nothing short of hypnotic. Although our hero(?) struggles through numerous adversities and obstacles, his main combatant comes in the form of a young preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). The young man seems to be well-aware of Plainview's rather mercenary approach to the oil game, so when the two butt heads over the oil beneath the Sundays' soil -- their battle of wills becomes some sort of epic clash: The rise of wealth and industry versus the sanctity of religion and faith.
Only ... the wealthy industrialist is kind of a crook -- and the preacher is sort of a schemer. So already we're dealing with conflicts, contradictions and a supremely satisfying sense of ambiguity. We should be rooting against the businessman, but we don't. And although it seems logical to side with the aspiring young preacher, there's something about the kid we just don't like. So what I'm basically saying is this: There Will Be Blood boasts one hell of a fantastic screenplay.
And gosh what a beautiful film to look at. The turn-of-the-century Texas landscape has rarely looked this, well, real, and Anderson paints his canvas with some masterful strokes. The establishing shot that introduces the central town is nothing short of stunning, and there are numerous sequences that simply dazzle the eye. Cinematographer Robert Elswit -- a frequent PTA collaborator -- should be preparing his "it's an honor just to be nominated" speech right now. And the musical score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is more than a separate character in the film; the stunning score feels more like an aural Greek chorus.
Which brings us to the lead performance by the force of nature known as Daniel Day-Lewis. One could call his Plainview a cross between Charles Foster Kane and Al Swearengen: Driven to succeed, willing to cast aside anyone who becomes a liability, brutal yet human, undeniable nasty yet somehow worthy of some empathy. And Mr. Lewis delivers an anchor of a performance that's as multi-faceted as it is simply plain old entertaining. And I hate to overuse the Oscar predictions, but if there's a better 2007 lead performance ... I'd simply love to see it.
Easily one of the year's best films (so far), There Will Be Blood presents a side of Paul Thomas Anderson that we haven't really seen yet -- but it's proof positive that he's still one of the finest directors out there right now. You probably won't believe that this film came from the same man who directed (the awesome) Boogie Nights, and I mean that as a big compliment. It's just that different -- and just that damned good.