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There Will Be Blood

Masterpiece-level filmmaking

After a five-year hiatus, controversial writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, Boogie Nights) returns with There Will Be Blood, a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel, Oil!. A character study set against the Southern California oil boom of the early twentieth-century, There Will Be Blood is, despite an overlong, repetitive epilogue, a near-great film by a writer/director who, like the filmmakers he's openly admired (e.g., Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Orson Welles), has finally emerged as an auteur with a vision and the technical knowledge to put that vision onscreen.

There Will Be Blood is set in California, circa 1898, as a gold and silver prospector, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), mines an isolated claim with crude implements and hard, physical labor. Injured in an accident, Plainview drags his broken leg through the dry, rocky terrain to an assayer’s office. Plainview is obviously no ordinary man. Plainview reinvests his earnings into the mine. Four years later, Plainview strikes oil. Almost overnight, Plainview becomes an oilman, but his ambition and greed drives him ever onward, leasing land from poor farmers and ranchers and drilling for oil.

Plainview takes his young son and “partner", H.W. (Russell Harvard), with him as he searches for oil-rich land, preferably from poor, uneducated farmers. Plainview eventually leases land from a poor goat farmer Abel Sunday (David Willis). Abel's son, Eli (Paul Dano), an evangelical preacher, sees through Plainview's affectations, but goes along to exchange for funding for his church. Eli sees the arrival of Plainview and the wealth he'll bring to the community as a God-given opportunity to expand his ministry to Plainview's men and spiritually deprived communities elsewhere. Almost immediately, Plainview's materialistic ethos comes up against Eli's (real or feigned) religiosity.

There Will Be Blood has much in common with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Both films center on "great men" who, driven to obtain and hold power, become corrupted by it. Even as they obtain material wealth and possessions, they push away everyone who means anything to them. H.W. provides Plainview with the only connection to compassion, empathy, and unconditional love he has. Women play no part in Plainview’s personal life. His affection for H.W., however, seems to be driven by practical considerations (i.e., so he'll be seen as a "family man") than by genuine emotion. It's the one human spark in a monstrous personality that confirms the connection between Plainview and Kane through personality, habit, and sentimentality.

Anderson, however, doesn't use any of the multi-layered, time-shifting techniques Welles used on Citizen Kane. He takes his visual cues not from Welles, but from Stanley Kubrick and Terence Malick. Anderson’s penchant for long, sinuous tracking shots is textbook Kubrick. The first, dialogue-free scene pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey's opening scene set in a prehistoric savannah. But Anderson isn't just trying to impress cineastes by quoting or referencing the work of master filmmakers. With Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood as his composer, Anderson sought to create nothing less than pure cinema that simultaneously engages the senses and the intellect. In that, Anderson succeeds brilliantly.

Unfortunately, There Will Be Blood falters when it jumps ahead to 1927 for the last two scenes. Minor misstep aside, There Will Be Blood is nothing less than bravura filmmaking from a filmmaker who's shown promise before, but who's also allowed his ambition to often exceeded his grasp. Here, finally, expectations about Anderson as a filmmaker have been fully met. Having accomplished so much with There Will Be Blood, it's hard to imagine what Anderson can do next to come even close. What we do know is that Anderson will try.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars