There Will Be Blood (****)

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Paul Thomas Anderson has made five feature films, and they’re all great. Not as in pretty good or worth a look, but as in excellent, remarkable movies . His debut was Hard Eight (or Sydney, as it’s sometimes known), starring Philip Baker Hall in one of the best forgotten performances of the 90s, followed by the phenomenal Southern California epics Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and in 2002 Anderson directed Adam Sandler in his career-best work in Punch-Drunk Love. From his track record, it seems that Anderson would have been content to make his next film another look at modern life in So Cal, but that wasn’t the case, as none of his previous films can prepare one for the demented brilliance that is There Will Be Blood.Starring the one and only Daniel-Day Lewis in a performance of raw and shocking power, There Will Be Blood (based upon the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair,) follows Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil tycoon as he scams, shams and muscles his way to the top in early 20th Century California. Right from the beginning, we pick up that this isn’t an ordinary film. It opens with Plainview deep in the ground, trying to excavate riches from the earth. He is covered in filth and dirt, and we see the desperation and greed on his face. After some setbacks, Plainview decides to try his luck with oil, and finds that he has a knack for this line of work.What’s interesting about the first 20 or so minutes of the film is that it’s done completely without dialogue, relying largely on Day-Lewis’ extraordinary acting and cinematographer Roger Elswit’s jaw-dropping work to tell the story. Flash-forward several years, and Plainview is on the road with his ‘son’ H.W. (Dillon Freasier), trying to suck dry both the land and the money from all whom he meets. He and his business partner Fletcher Hamilton (Ciaran Hinds) are visited by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who claims that he knows where a large supply of oil is located.Plainview and H.W. end up at the Sunday Ranch, where they meet Paul’s twin brother, Eli (also played by Dano, I still am not sure if they’re actually different characters or another trick of Anderson’s ingenious screenplay). Eli, a young preacher, stands in the way of Plainview and his oil. Of course, their battle of wills is a big part of the film.Also important to the plot is the introduction of a character played by the actor Kevin J. O’Connor, who may or may not be who he says he is. The film is mysterious, unsettling, and uncompromising in the way it never reveals its whole hand, in the way it pushes us, provokes us, taunts us. In the way it refuses to tell this epic in a conventional way, or resolve it in a way that Hollywood tells us films should be resolved.Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the true great actors, and his work here is unlike anything he’s ever done. Daniel Plainview is cruel, vicious and sadistic, but Day-Lewis makes him strangely compelling. Plainveiw is larger-than-life in this film, and he needed an actor who could play that kind of role convincingly. The real surprise in this film is Paul Dano, who gives a performance that is, in its own way, every bit as good as Day-Lewis’. It’s a brilliant supporting role, and I hope Dano is also nominated for his terrific work. Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds and Dillon Freasier all give strong performances as well.The film in places reminds me of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Giant, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (the film is, in fact, dedicated to Robert Altman). It also evokes in its imagery the work of Terrence Malick and, of course, Kubrick (I say “of course” because Anderson is often compared to Kubrick). There Will Be Blood is a full-blooded, unforgettable epic of an American tyrant, and more proof that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the truly great modern filmmakers.

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