There Will Be Blood

(Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007) There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece by any standard. Not by Hollywood’s blinkered measure and not by the fickle measure of a particular culture or generation. Anderson’s epic is for the ages, the first to emerge from an American studio in some time. If US critics and film associations tend to look no further than their own borders for their annual Best Of lists – neglecting stronger films from afar with eye-rolling predictability – There Will Be Blood, at least, stands the test of international perspective. Daniel Day Lewis’ turn as an ambitious oilman may be Oscar bait, but it’s grand, fustian, goosepimpling Oscar bait, and Anderson tempers his lead’s (perfectly appropriate) excesses with non-Hollywood devices, like a 15-minute opening sequence devoid of dialogue that’s destined for film school syllabi (alongside the safecracking scene from Rififi and the photo-developing scene from Blowup).

Anderson’s privileging of visuals over exposition announces his arrival in the cinematic canon. After overrated starts and an excellent but unchallenging Punch-Drunk Love, he’s finally learned what the medium of film can uniquely achieve. There Will Be Blood may have drawn inspiration from studio-system fare like The Searchers, but the movie looks more like the lovechild of a Malick/Kubrick union than a conventional Ford piece. Blood has a Golden Age pedigree, but its blazing derrick scene is framed by a Terence Malick sky and its bowling-alley scene is shot and styled like a Stanley Kubrick interior, warm hues and gleaming symmetry and all. The movie has a Hollywood heart and the face of an outlier; it’s what great American filmmakers with unlimited cash should be producing regularly but rarely ever do.

Blood is an aesthetic triumph and a keen study of American mythmaking in several forms: economic, religious, and libertarian. With an Upton Sinclair story, an indispensable cast, a haunting landscape and a mesmerizing anti-hero, it wastes none of its parts, a perfect blend of image and narrative. Soundtrack is also key; this film is what it is partly because of Jonny Greenwood’s inventive score, which avoids the maudlin cues of the Williams/Shore school. Some have credited the film for its realistic hue but that’s mistaken praise – Anderson’s study is pointedly surreal (especially in the above-mentioned scenes), a not-quite-true world overlaying a landscape made familiar to us through history and entertainment. – Ranylt Richildis

(Originally published as part of In Review Online’s The 100 Best Films of the Decade feature, in February 2010.)

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