The Films of 2008: Part Four

2. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Many critics wrote off Anderson’s last feature, Punch-Drunk Love (2002), as a throwaway piece, almost a vanity project for the director to work with Adam Sandler before returning to the serious business of making another Robert Altman-inspired ensemble drama like Magnolia (1999) or Boogie Nights (1997). But if they had inspected his last film more closely, they would have seen a signpost for what was to come: what Punch-Drunk was doing was challenging the very foundations upon which modern cinema is based – playing with genre convention, narrative expectations and characterization, as well as demonstrating the director’s incredible flair for both innovative visual and sound design.

Five long years on from this, and what emerges is another such challenge, a meticulously rendered period piece, but one whose allegorical content raises what could be a simple tale of greed and corruption to the level of near-Biblical tragedy. It is the story of the coming of modern America, and so becomes a story of our oil-soaked times: the incompatibilty of unfettered and inhuman capitalism with the evangelism upon which the country was founded. Day-Lewis’ barnstorming performance has been well documented, but Paul Dano opposite him as his nemesis, preacher Eli Sunday, is just as spellbinding. The balance between the two is essential to the film: one can constantly feel the two poles of religion and greed tussling beneath a surface veneer of social respectability, each despising but also failing to comprehend the other.

And pulling everything along is Jonny Greenwood’s phenomenal score: ear-piercing violin screeches alternating with driving pizzicato rhythms, keeping the films relentless march towards its eventual denouement. I have now seen There Will Be Blood four times, and still feel entralled watching it, bemused and questioning about its cinematic language, and above all further in awe at the best director currently working in mainstream American cinema, Paul Thomas Anderson.

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