To the time of writing this, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” remains the only film I’ve seen on two consecutive showings at the cinema, such was the vice like grip it held me in from the first viewing. Like many films on this list it arrived in this country in the middle of awards season, laden with expectation and praise. For once it more than lived up to the hype – a rich, satisfying horror-drama graced with the most magnetic performance to grace the screen that year. Three months later when it emerged on DVD I introduced a whole host of people to its wonder, and when I sat down to develop this list it was amongst the first films that populated the list. Five years later I still think it was the finest film of this Centuries first decade. It was never a film to enjoy, but the level of craft involved meant that it could never be ignored.
Daniel Day Lewis remains the highlight of the film, producing a portrait of screen villainy (and this is a film where nearly all of the characters are villains – only Ciaran Hinds is sympathetic amongst the adult characters) that is astonishing in that despite being an utter bastard you want him to succeed. Even at the end when he almost (and it’s a thin line here) descends into parody of himself he remains electrifying, a force of nature caught on film. I commented at the time that it felt like a case of demonic possession rather than a performance and I still stand by that claim, there’s something unnaturally evil about him that has been caught and bottled. However, time has also highlighted the strength of every other performance (there isn’t a bad one amongst them), with Paul Dano emerging as someone who almost manages to step out of the Day Lewis shadow. His is another study of evil, almost an apprentice to Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, but one which uses superstition to get his way. Watch the scene where chastened by a previous encounter with Plainview he sits and watches the rest of his family eat before launching a vicious assault on his father – for what feels like an eternity he holds the gaze of the camera, letting the fury build up inside to the point where it’s a relief to the audience that the camera cuts away from this view when he finally attacks. Day Lewis drew all of the plaudits, but Dano has possibly the more difficult of the two roles.
The third character is the landscape – both visual and aural. Anderson approached Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood to score the film, and his vast sounding, metallic landscapes (cruelly denied an Oscar by a campaign led by Hans Zimmer) are – like the rest of the film – both accentuates and is at odds with the visuals. It feels expansive, but at times it struggles to be heard over the silence of the film (for all of its rich dialogue, large chunks of the film are without). It heightens the sense of tension, the clash between straight drama and grand horror, adding to the sense of exhaustion. The visuals are equally arresting, scenes are either over-lit by the scorching desert sun or under-lit by candles, often cutting violently from one to the other. The whole effect is to further disorientate the viewer until you’re not sure what it is you’re watching, Anderson mimicking his idol Kubrick in not quite delivering the film you’re expecting, moving from one genre to another without effort.
The last part of the equation is undoubtedly Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterful direction. After only a handful of films and having initially been dismissed as a would be Tarantino he here delivered – if not his first masterpiece on reflection – his first undisputed from release masterpiece, a master class in what cinema was capable of, drawing on every technique from the past and welding it to the technological trick of the future. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s an effects fest – it isn’t – but there are more modern filming techniques in the opening twenty minutes than every effects heavy film to come. He didn’t even need dialogue, his absolute faith in his actors ability to convey the desired mood was enough. Watch the scene where a feverish Plainview, having murdered his supposed brother is viewed from afar by the land-owner he’s gone to negotiate with. The camera focuses on the foreground where the body is buried making us complicit in his crime. Anderson understood that we would side with Plainview, gradually intensifying the nature of his evil, but ensuring we never look away. The ending is the only natural conclusion to the film.
The ending; it divided everyone who saw it. Was it a step too far? The only logical conclusion? The truth is that it’s a little of both, the culmination of the insanity we’ve seen before and the ferocity of everyone involved. Plainview never loses his composure, Paul never really fears anything (even God?) until he realises how far he has fallen, and their final tete-et-tete reveals that after years Paul just wanted to be rich, Plainview merely saw that as a way to win the conflict for his soul (expressed through cinema’s most excruciating baptism). His final acts damns them both forever, leaving him exhausted but complete – a ludicrous image that segues violently into Brahm’s Violin Concerto and the titles. It’s simultaneously both preposterous and profound, a fitting conclusion to everything that has gone before – in short, brilliance.
There Will Be Blood makes the list by sheer brutishness, a violent slap in the face of film decency forcing its way on, both old fashioned in its commitment to story above all else and modern in its willingness to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. It felt like a masterpiece when it first emerged and five years later its status is undiminished – a truly great film that is uncomfortable to watch, but impossible to turn away from, drawing you in until you’re addicted and complicit in its study of the evils of capitalism, faith and (above all) man.