I caught Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood, at a press screening a few days ago. Anderson is without a doubt one of the best directors working today. Magnolia is my favorite film of all time, and his other three films are varying degrees of brilliant. Coming off Magnolia, he said “I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I'll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I'll make some clunkers, maybe I'll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make.”
His follow up to Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, further develops the magical realist strain present in the former, and does some really interesting things with film form, so I was excited to see where he’d go next. Unfortunately, There Will Be Blood is easily Anderson’s weakest film, a move towards conventional filmmaking at the expense of the unique voice that shone through in his first four films. It’s not a bad movie, but it doesn’t ignite a fire in me the way his other films do. Watching those other movies, I’m awed at the power of what cinema can do; here, there are some great moments, but the film never quite gets it together, primarily due to the lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, which ultimately sinks the film.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its physicality. In the opening sequence, we see Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview fall down a mineshaft, and the sound and impact of the scene is painful. We’re right there with him as he hits the ground, and the death of a derrick worker later in the film is similarly effective. In those moments, you really get the sense of the danger of this work, but also the sense of discovery. Plainview begins the film as one man in a hole, trying to find wealth, and that pain he feels will be vindicated later in the film.
The film’s strongest material is in its first half. We quickly get a sense of who Plainview is, and are able to segue into the film’s central set piece, his creation of a new Little Boston, a town so rich with oil that it’s literally seeping out of the ground. I love watching works like Deadwood or The Wire’s third season that detail the creation of a new civilization. In those works, we understand how a singular vision can lead to vast changes in the lives of all involved. I was feeling a McCabe and Mrs. Miller vibe, with the wealthy industrialist coming to build a town that would make him money.