Paul Thomas Anderson | 152 mins | DVD | 15 / R
I used to consider myself a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson; however, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m merely a fan of the film Magnolia. As I explained when I covered Boogie Nights, I love Magnolia, thoroughly dislike Punch-Drunk Love, and was ultimately uncertain about Boogie Nights. There Will Be Blood’s significant Oscar nominations and wins seem to have cemented it as Anderson’s most acclaimed work, but I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of this either.
That’s not to say it’s a bad film, but it is at times a baffling one. It makes minimal concessions to its audience from the very start, beginning with an extended montage that covers relatively vast tracts of time with virtually no dialogue, before segueing into a story that introduces and discards characters and events with little hint of their relevance, and eventually makes a huge leap forward for an equally impenetrable ending, all the while under- (or perhaps over-) scored with Jonny Greenwood’s disquieting music, sounding like the THX logo writ large. I can’t help but wonder if I missed something crucial along the way because, even after two and a half hours, I had no real idea what the film was about.
Leaving that aside, the film is technically excellent in just about every field. Daniel Day-Lewis easily deserved his Best Actor wins for his role as oil magnate Daniel Plainview, a performance so subtle that there initially seems little to it but which slowly peels away the layers to uncover much more. Anderson’s screenplay helps him along with an array of scenes written to textbook levels of perfection (almost literally: in a screenwriting class we studied in depth the scene where Plainview negotiates a land purchase from the Sunday family). Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano delivers a superb supporting turn too, even if his casting as brothers Paul and Eli Sunday adds a level of confusion where there isn’t meant to be one (considering there was originally a different actor cast as Eli). Dillon Freasier also offers good, understated work as H.W., Plainview’s 11-year-old son.
Individual scenes are certainly well handled. The opening may offer little in the way of explanation, but with minimal dialogue, well-chosen images and events it expertly conveys Plainview’s rise to prominence and establishes his position without ever doing more than is necessary. The sequence with the burning oil derrick is visually stunning and, for me, the first point at which the discomforting score really worked (though it must be worth noting that Greenwood actually composed that cue for a different film). As already mentioned, many of the dialogue scenes are also exemplary, among them the much-quoted bowling alley finale. Anderson is capable of crafting moments of immense power, even if their cumulative effect is perhaps unclear.
It’s difficult to judge a film I have such conflicted feelings about, especially when its high critical consensus leaves me with a nagging feeling that, somewhere along the way, I missed something of vital importance. I’m not really a fan, and I’ll no longer call myself a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, but his work is certainly interesting and definitely merits revisiting.
Originally posted on 5th March 2010.