By John H. Foote
After each decade ends, film critics usually debate which film was the finest of the previous 10 years, which we did with the first 10 years of the 2000’s. Nearly every critic I encounter places this film in the top three of the decade, most placing it number one, which I agree with in every way. The first time I saw the film I was bowled over by the direction, so confident, so powerful and the simply astounding performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, creating a monstrous man before our eyes.
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 firsthand 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 becoming 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 nomination, the one and only of his long career.
Boogie Nights 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 honour a film about the pornographic film industry, which they could no longer pretend did not exist. The adult industry is an incredibly popular and profitable business, but there is a dark side to it that cannot be ignored. The exploitation of women is at the top of that list, though the actresses go into the films with their eyes wide open. I personally have never considered pornography to be art in any way, shape or form, but many others do, that cannot be denied. To pretend that world and that business does not exist is foolish.
Anderson followed Boogie Nights with a true American masterpiece, the brash, daring Magnolia (1999) which over a period of 24 hours tells the story of a group of people living in Los Angeles, their lives all somehow connecting and 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’s coming scrolled on a bar wall. Magnolia 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. How could the Academy ignore such a monumentally original work? More important, why would they choose to ignore this film and this director?
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. There were still traces of the explosive Sandler in the character, that rage that percolated through his comedic work was used, but Anderson dove deeper with the actor, taking him to places he had never gone before. It would be 17 years before another director so challenged Sandler, not until Uncut Gems (2019) was he again so authentic, so electrifying.
Five years would pass between this and Anderson’s 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, when he was finished, be widely 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 a group of 30 critics at an early morning press screening and was stunned. The first 30 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. He is both relentless and unstoppable, a dark force of nature. Having truck oil while mining for silver, he is instantly a man of wealth, but it is never enough, it never will be enough. 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 (though a false prophet) 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 central narrative of this brilliant near epic film. Eli breaks in front of the congregation, deepening Daniel’s hatred for him causing Daniel to strike him and then beat him, finally driving the young man away.
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 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 now pathetic 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, ending with “I’m finished”. Yes, in so many ways.
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, of capitalism. 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 and without so much as a backward glance.
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 to 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, he 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.
I watched Chinatown (1974) not long after seeing There Will Be Blood and was fascinated when I made the comparison between Daniel Plainview and Noah Cross (John Huston), the wretched villain of the great film noir. Using the voice of Huston for Plainview, the character of Plainview could easily grow into the corrupt and morally decayed man that is Noah Cross!
In one of those rare instances Day-Lewis swept the major actor awards winning Best Actor from the L.A. Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Screen Actors Guild, the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globe Award and finally the Academy Award. It was a performance that simply could not be denied any award, so brilliant an achievement it was.
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 an angry, desolate and 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 when ablaze, it is like the devil come to life to dance in the night, belching his fury high into the sky.
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 50 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.
God help anyone who encounters anyone like Daniel Plainview.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.