Beginning with a buzzing disturbance straight out of a Kubrickian nightmare (or is it a Lynchian nightmare?) and ending in a Brechtian feast of gruesome delight that one has to see to believe, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a monster of a movie - more monstrous than anything King Kong could ever dream of serving up. It is some sort of Orson Welles, John Ford, D.W. Griffith, Stanley Kubrick, John Huston, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Sergio Leone, Erich von Stroheim monstrosity of a motion picture. A cinematic amalgamation of the whole of film history, with arms and legs and heads and horns of all those auteurs that came before him, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a billion-eyed beast of a movie that goes far beyond anything any of us thought Anderson was ever capable of - or pretty much anyone was capable of. Movie y mano, Anderson venomously concocts a near perfect mixture of madness and mise-en-scene to create a motion picture of undeniable cinematic bravura.
Taking Upton Sinclair's Oil! (or at least the first few chapters and epilogue) and transposing it into a postmodern Citizen Kane, Anderson has perfected the very art of auteur filmmaking. Taking what he did with the essence of Scorsese in Boogie Nights and the spirit of Altman in Magnolia, Anderson has multiplied it a million fold with the biblical monster movie There Will Be Blood, and going beyond mere imitation or homage like De Palma or Tarantino, he has entered a magical realm of honest loving cinematic genuflection the likes of which we have not seen from an American director, with the lone blazing exception of David Lynch and his Mulholland Dr., since the days of the director driven cinema of the 1970's American New Wave. This is a bold new American cinema being born, Phoenix-like, from the bloody ashes of all that came and went before. As iconically American as Kane or Chinatown or Taxi Driver or Greed - and just as caustic - this motion picture is something truly incredible. This is something that cannot be missed. This is something superhuman, something supercinematic. To sound quite genuflectory myself - and I cannot help but do so (sounding more like a studio adman or perhaps Anderson's own press agent than the hard-nosed film critic I claim to be) - this is not only the best film of 2007, this may very well be, no make that this is one of the greatest films ever made. Ever.
As far as the story goes, it is a tale of old testament fire and brimstone - literally and figuratively. As pertinent today as it was when Sinclair wrote it in 1927, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a staggering monster movie pitting God vs. Greed, and in the end, as is always the case, Greed wins. This is the story of the deceptively named Daniel Plainview, who we first meet in the dark numbing silence of a makeshift silver mine, then crawling on his back, shattered leg in tow, across miles of rocky terrain just to make his claim and finally as the explosively charged self-proclaimed oil man offering up his services to the throngs of genuflecting would be oil barons, all the time growing richer and richer upon the backs of these naive cash cattle with each successive bursting oil well exploding from the dry dusty ground as if trying to escape the very Devil himself, only to find an even worst beast above the surface.
Although blatantly modeled after Charles Foster Kane, from humble beginnings to self-exiled madness, Daniel Plainview, without the crutch of any sort of rosebud-esque sentimentality, is 100% pure monster, from top to bottom, from beginning to end. At one point, in a cinematic moment of Hellish Nirvana, as one of Daniel's wells explodes into an inferno straight out of revelations (his water is oil and it runs with the blood of all those around him) and his adoptive son, who is nothing more than a cherub-faced pawn, is nearly killed and left for deaf, we see Daniel silhouetted against the raging fire, covered in a skein of bloody oil, lording over his "creation" as if he truly were the King of Hellfire. As one watches this scene unfold, one surely begins to realize that perhaps this man, this Daniel Plainview is indeed the very Devil himself.
Played with a ferocity that surpasses even Gangs of New York's Bill the Butcher, Daniel Day-Lewis is an ever-simmering, constantly bubbling, potentially explosive demon of a human being as Daniel Plainview - Moloch devouring all that lies before him. Channeling John Huston's Noah Cross with each and every deep long breath and every hulking purposeful step (as I said before, his water is oil and it turns to blood in his own private 'Chinatown') Daniel Day-Lewis proves once again that he is the most intensely superhuman actor working today - and probably the most powerful since the early days of Brando. Full of spleen for the whole of humanity, Day-Lewis/Plainview (for the method actor and the demonic character become one entity throughout) trepidatiously keeps his evil mostly in check, with only brief shocks of madness, until his full out direptitious mega explosion come the undeniably full-throttled bestial finale that will take everyone completely and utterly off guard with its absurd madness. In short, Day-Lewis/Plainview will drink your milkshake. He'll drink it up! (trust me, once you have seen this film, that reference will make sense to you, albeit in the most senseless way).
Meanwhile, playing the antithesis to Daniel's fire demon is Paul Dano as the meek-willed young evangelist Eli, who wants his upstart church to be able to cash in on Daniel's oil boom. Stomped at as if a tiny bug by the giant shoes of Daniel, never able to defend himself against this goliath, Eli seems to be the very embodiment of sanctimony itself, but do not let that fool you, as with a glint in his eye, Eli is also the embodiment of the church, a church that wants its lion's share of the gold (or oil in this case) making it (the Church, organized religion, supposed Christian values) play out as just as evil as Daniel and his insatiable thirst for power and money. Using each other for their own cause, trying to prove which is master, God or Greed, Daniel and Eli are the crux of a battle between good and evil, right and wrong, God and Man. A war which has been raging since before time began and will be burning throughout eternity - long after Daniel's oil wells dry up and long after Eli's congregation dies off. The only question remaining is, which side is good and which side is evil - or is there even a difference?
And then there is the ending. Analyzed and theoricized to death, Anderson's final twenty minutes of There Will Be Blood is so reelingly absurd, so dangerously deranged, so batshitcrazy that we may think we are imagining what we are seeing. That somewhere during the buzzing madness that underlies the entire film, we were seduced, hypnotized, poisoned or drugged and what we now are watching is some sort of fever-induced nightmare born of the mad blood that is Anderson's movie. We must be thinking to ourselves that this is not real, that Anderson would not end his film in such a preposterous manner. Yet it is just this ending, this Grand Guignol monster ripped from the death grip of Luis Bu˝uel, that turns this already brilliant thesis on religion, humanity (and cinema) into a work of mad art that will never be forgotten in the annals of film history. Just as Anderson has stripped bare such films as Citizen Kane, 2001, The Shining, The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, Birth of a Nation, Greed, Chinatown, Taxi Driver McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Citizen Kane (yes I said Citizen Kane twice!), fifty, a hundred years from now, filmmakers not even born yet, not even thought of yet, will strip bare the bloody bones of Anderson's film and in turn will create a new American cinema of their very own - and the phoenix shall be reborn - again.
In sum, while many of Anderson's critics have called him and his film pretentious (probably the most oft-mentioned criticism about Anderson throughout his still young career) one must take that as cop out criticism by those who know not how to take this brave film. Beneath the mantle of a different kind of filmmaker - a lesser filmmaker if you will - pretension can easily take down even the best of intentions, but in the hands of certain auteurs - Welles and Kubrick come to mind immediately - pretension, or more aptly that which one perceives as pretension, can be the very backbone of a great film. In the hands of Paul Thomas Anderson (the heir apparent to Welles and Kubrick perhaps?) it is spun as if gold from the guts and groin of Rumpelstiltskin. To paraphrase Truffaut when writing about Johnny Guitar back in his Cahiers days, if one does not like Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood then they should never go to the movies again, for they know nothing of cinema. With that already brazen statement, allow me to make an even bolder, brasher one now. I shall take a word that is tossed about so willy-nilly by studio admen all across the Hollywood hills and mainstream movie critics hoping to see their name in lights (aka as poster blurbs) that it has nearly lost all meaning, all sincerity, and I shall place this word where it should have been all along, upon the most revered pedestal of honour, only to be used in the most extreme cases of canonization. Taking this word - a word I have not used in describing a new film since Lars von Trier's Dogville four years ago, and Lynch's Mulholland Dr. two years before that (and capitalizing it for added impact) - I proudly proclaim at the very top of my lungs and from the very acme of cinematic worship, and with no shame at all in my voice, that Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is a Masterpiece!! Nothing else need be said. [01/28/08]