By John H. Foote



Paul Thomas Anderson first came to my attention for his extraordinary roller-coaster ride through the seventies and eighties pornography industry Boogie Nights (1997) in which we saw first hand how porn went from being an underground industry shot on expensive 16mm to a massive business shot on video. The film was programmed as a work in progress at TIFF in 1997, and though unfinished was among the hottest tickets at the festival. Walking down the line of press and TIFF invitees you could see press, actors and other filmmakers waiting to get in to see the film. Three hours later it was the talk of the festival, Anderson was on his way to being a major new director and Burt Reynolds was headed for a much deserved Oscar nomination, even though initially he hated the film. His role had been written for Warren Beatty, who begged off, believing the role would tarnish his image. Now, he states it was among the biggest mistakes of his career. Reynolds would win the New York Film Critics Circle Award as Best Supporting Actor and earn an Oscar

Boogie Nights (1997) opened to rave reviews, critics pointing out the merging of styles of Altman, Lumet, Scorsese and Woody Allen for the film, as Anderson found his voice in all four of those great directors. The film was nominated for just three Academy Awards, Reynolds for supporting actor, Julianne Moore for supporting actress, and Anderson for his screenplay. Clearly, the Academy lacked the courage to honor a film about the pornography industry, which they could no longer pretend did not exist.

Anderson followed that film with a true American masterpiece, the brash, daring Magnolia (1999) which over twenty-four hours tells the story of a group of people living in Los Angeles, their lives all somehow merging over the course of the film. With exceptional performances from Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, all part of his growing ensemble of actors, along with Jason Robards, Moira Waters, and best of all Tom Cruise, the film was an absolute work of genius. If you watch closely every question within is answered, even the bizarre raining of the frogs, a quote from Exodus announcing it is coming scrolled on a bar wall. Magnolia (1999) broke boundaries, took risks few films would have taken, and screamed  from the rooftops, “here was an artist….celebrate him!!!!” Yet again, rave reviews, so-so box office, and just three Oscar nominations, with Cruise the only of the great cast being nominated.

Working with Adam Sandler in his next film Punch Drunk Love (2002) felt initially like a publicity stunt, but upon seeing the film at TIFF in 2002, we saw what he was doing, using Sandler’s persona to create a new one, proving the young comic had talent, letting him give a lighter than air performance as a troubled young man in love. He was profoundly good in the film, and Anderson had made an excellent, however dark love story.

Five years would pass between this and his next film, There Will Be Blood (2007) loosely based, very loosely based on the book Oil!. He wrote the film with Daniel Day-Lewis in mind, though he did not know the actor, he made sure he would when the time was right. And he did just that. Day-Lewis, a thoughtful actor who chose his roles very cautiously, was initially intrigued enough to call Anderson and discuss the role. Told he would have complete freedom in creating the character, Day-Lewis signed on, likely not aware he had just agreed to a role that would be considered one of the screen’s greatest performances. The actor began working on his character, finding the most important element for him, the voice.

When the film opened in 2007, I first saw it with with a group of thirty critics at an afternoon press screening and was stunned. The first thirty minutes are near silent save the strains of the soundtrack, as we watch Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview mine for silver, hacking through the earth, hoping for a strike. He is relentless, even when a fall breaks his back and he crawls to civilization, a baby in tow after finding oil. HIs wealth now having grown, he strikes out for more, and finds it on a grassy plain owned by an old man with two sons, twins, the first selling the land to Daniel without the right to do so, the second, a man of God, who allows the sale, provided part of the earnings go to building his church. Eli (Paul Dano) does not like Daniel, nor trust him, but the feeling is mutual. Their conflict, with Daniel’s own inner turmoil, becomes the narrative of this brilliant near epic film.

The richer Daniel gets, the more he wants. He admits to a man pretending to be his brother that he despises most men, holds them in contempt because they represent to him a competition. It becomes more and more evident that Daniel despises mankind, hates everyone, except his the child he has adopted as his son H.W. When the boy is terribly injured in an explosion, left deaf, Plainview sends him away to a school where he learns to speak with his hands, but also learns the way of society and sees what his father is. When he returns to his loving father, the boy has changed, he stares at his father with a knowing hate, he sees him for the monster he truly is.

And his war with Eli, the false prophet continues. In fact, it never really stops. They encounter one another in the end, inside Daniel’s massive mansion where Eli comes begging for some money, the money owed him that Daniel refused to pay. Thinking if Daniel can pull the oil from under Eli’s farm, that will provide him with enough to live on the rest of his life. Daniel laughs, knowing that oil is long gone, having drawn it out years ago. He explains to the weeping Eli how he did it and then thunders, “I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!” and then beats the younger man to death with a bowling pin.

In addition to being an astonishing character study of a hateful man, the film is also a startling study of America, the darkest sides of the American dream. Daniel seeks enormous wealth and fame, no matter the cost. He is willing to do whatever it takes, even kill to get what he believes is his. Every one of the ten commandments which Eli celebrates, Daniel will break.

Day-Lewis is simply breathtaking as Plainview giving a performance that will be celebrated and studied for ages to come. Stalking the screen like a wild animal, you can feel his contempt for mankind in every word, every gesture every baleful gaze. His voice sounds remarkably like that of the great film director John Huston, deeper, every vowel rounded, a pleasure to listen too until you realize what he is saying. With his eyes always alert, watchful, aware of each and every betrayal, he is like the alpha wolf but the pack he protects is himself. No one else is deemed worthy. He might love his boy if he is capable of any kind of love, but the moment the boy is against him, he becomes the enemy. It is a magnificent performance, and while watching it you cannot quite believe what you are seeing, how great it truly is. Day-Lewis the actor, the person is gone, we are watching only Plainview. Literate, convincing, yet primal, cruel, even brutal, hs is a horror show of a human being. Cunning, but dangerously so, he bears no good will to his fellow man, wishing them only failure for his own gain.

In one of those rare instances, Day-Lewis swept the major actor awards winning Best Actor from the LA Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Screen Actors Guild, the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globe and finally the Academy Award. It was a performance that simply could not be denied any award so brilliant, was it.

Critics fell over themselves seeking superlatives to write about the film, no one was quite prepared for how sublime the film would be. I mean we expected great but a film for the ages? No one was prepared for that.

An American epic, belching fire, and brimstone, a tale of greed, of envy told with Old Testament fury, the God in this film is money. Both intimate and filled with spectacle, the film pulls us towards and pushes us away from Daniel who over the course of the film becomes more and more reptilian to us, less human, his very soul corrupted by his obscene wealth. At what cost has that wealth come? Only he knows and he knows all too well. His shame is that he feels none, not a shred.

Anderson gives the film a spiky look, miles of plains dotted with oil rigs and the men working them, and when one explodes we see the extraordinary fury lurking beneath the earth, as though the oil had been disturbed and is more than a little pissed off about it. Blazing against the night sky, lighting up all within distance, it is like the devil come to life to dance in the night. To celebrate with Daniel, the anti-christ of this tale, his growing fortune, and the souls he is collecting along the way.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, the film collected just two, Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis, and Best Cinematography. IN  fifty years they will be discussing this picture in film schools, they will look at it and recognize in that time what cinematic art truly was. Like Conrad, Anderson takes us on a journey into a heart of darkness, and we encounter the monster staring us in the face. Some might say they know that man, I am that man. God help that man.

Leave a comment