There Will Be Blood (Anderson, 2007)

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There Will Be Blood, a taut, exhausting, and altogether fascinating Western from Paul Thomas Anderson, begins with prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) slamming a pick ax against the hard rock wall of a deep ditch as Jonny Greenwood’s piercing score echoes across the screen. From the very beginning, the film creates a sense of menace hovering over the story, unseen but felt with the certainty of death. Drenched in dirt, Daniel wields his tool with harrowing purpose, shooting sparks toward the ground (a brilliant foreshadowing to the fiery visuals to come).

Anderson’s haunting opening eclipses dialogue, showing Plainview as a grueling work horse full of ambition and presence, speechless at the wrenching progress of his business ventures, especially as he becomes immersed in the oil drilling industry. This momentum leads Daniel and his son H.W. to explore and expand their drilling company, propelling them to Little Boston, CA and an “ocean of oil” underneath the hard dirt surface. Here, Daniel finds an adversary in local preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a boy prophet bent on using the oil boom to further his own religious cause. This conflict turns to betrayal, which evolves into blood, holding true to the promise of the film’s title.¬†Anchored by Robert Elswitt’s riveting steadicam and tracking shots, Anderson masterfully constructs these scenes with a sense of unmatched scope and authenticity, watching the town shift from quiet veranda, where silence overwhelms, to a pressurized industrial hub lined with motion. The vibrancy of a derrick consumed by fire, the coolness of the blue Pacific, and the darkness of oil itself all lead the film toward a sense of heightened instinct, a motif which both defines and engages Day-Lewis’ razor-sharp performance.

As an allegory for capitalist greed and phony evangelical discourse, There Will Be Blood reverberates with rage and guilt, ultimately reveling in obvious symbolism to compliment the brutal clash of both destructive ideologies. Big business and religion become fateful bedfellows, crushing each character with a combination of deception and failed compassion. But Anderson gets so caught up in this sensational dynamic he abuses the strongest theme in There Will Be Blood: the complex relationship between parent and child. Whether it be H.W., Eli, or the Sunday sisters, There Will Be Blood astutely contrasts their plights, but brilliantly ties them together with a sense of hatred for their kin. The most stunning bloodshed in Anderson’s near-masterpiece wallows unseen beneath the surface, with the children who have been abandoned, orphaned, and psychologically left behind.

Hard Eight (P.T. Anderson, 1996)

Before Dirk Diggler, the falling frogs, and Adam Sandler’s rage, Paul Thomas Anderson made a sublime and often brilliant character study entitled Hard Eight. It’s the quiet story of Sydney (the regal Philip Baker Hall), an old gambler who meets and befriends John (dopey John C. Reilly), an out of luck drifter looking for help. Under the neon lights of Las Vegas and Reno, the two form a mellow father/son relationship seemingly molded out of chance and circumstance. But looks, and in turn the odds, can be deceiving, and Hard Eight holds hidden pleasures throughout. During a number of epic long takes, cinematographer Robert Elswitt’s camera roves through the slot machines and smokey bars like a hypnotized traveller, much as John does during his gambling initiation with Sydney. It’s a glorious use of location, one that mirrors the layers of character complexity and motivation, masking an uncertainty between past and present Anderson alludes to often. Hard Eight is a clear cut beginning to the director’s obsession with father figures and the affects of parental action on their children, themes which deepen and ripen with each passing P.T.A. film.

Punch-Drunk Love (P.T. Anderson, 2002)

“I don’t have any business here. I came here for you.” – Barry Egan (Adam Sandler)

“So here we go.” – Lena Leonard (Emily Watson)

Boogie Nights has the gloss. Magnolia has the tragedy. But Punch-Drunk Love has the magic. The two quotes above signify the complicated nature of this magic, a risky and worthwhile trip into the abyss of loving not one self or the image of others, but the soul of another human being. The clarity and purpose of Punch-Drunk Love retains a lasting impression, the colors and mise-en-scene literally seeping into the viewers pours engaging romantic memories of old. The sound design warrants a full term paper by itself, a stunning array of psychological audio combinations and heartfelt music cues. Having not seen the film since it opened in the Fall of 2002, I’d forgotten the force of Sandler’s performance and the beauty of Anderson’s direction. It’s great to be reminded, reborn along with Barry and Lena. Having watched three PTA films in a row for the second time, it’s hard for me to think of another American director (except Clint) who’s established themselves as a complete film artist. Punch-Drunk Love is a poetic masterpiece devoted to the longing and fulfillment of romance incarnate and an exemplary compliment to the harsher but just as layered worlds of Dirk Diggler and Frank “T.J.” Mackey.

Boogie Nights (P.T. Anderson, 1997)

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A first love of mine. Seen initially at the tender age of 16, Boogie Nights knocked me out like few other films have (except maybe Pulp Fiction). Watching it now, almost ten years later and hot on the heels of a revisiting of Magnolia, PTA’s second feature still glistens and gleams, but not to the point of delirium I remember so fondly . It remains a stellar example of Anderson’s love for movement, through both camera and music, sometimes at the expense of his characters. The first half especially, the “beginning of the end of the porn film industry”, does not succeed like Magnolia‘s heartbreaking modern but personal expose’. But Boogie Nights‘ descent into madness is even more fresh and frightening – the cross cutting between Dirk’s assault, Roller Girl’s beat down of a familiar frat boy, and Buck Swope’s fateful donut stop is one of Anderson’s grandest achievements in directing. It’s with these transitions that Boogie Nights shows it’s gravitas, the chance encounters that can define and destroy our very existence. Mark Wahlberg’s performance as the sweet, dense, and very endowed Diggler, gets better each time. Others, like Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) and Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) take full focus, while many characters are left behind unfinished and unexplored. Boogie Nights, while a stunning, epic, and fleeting mosaic, is slightly less memorable than Magnolia or Punch-drunk Love. Apples and oranges, though. The patented PTA long steady-cam shot which ends the film sums it all up; family is everything and they’ll probably forgive and forget, no matter how much you’ve fucked them [over].

Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999)

Flushed with roving, calculated camera movement and amazing sound design, Magnolia aches with the past pains and doubts of the future. P.T. Anderson’s third feature goes places most American filmmakers avoid – into the haunting echoes of regret, difficult forgiveness, and the lowly personal lives of it’s characters. This has to be considered the Best American melodrama/musical in recent times, not only for it’s incredible filmmaking precision, but also it’s use of color. Like a Sirk masterpiece of the 50’s, Anderson wants to signify fate, adultery, passion, and pain through the use of vibrant hues and dark shadows. He does so in spades, but with a comic touch few can match. The performances are all first rate, but this time out, my third viewing, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman stand out especially – both kind, gentle men living in a world which rarely appreciates such qualities. The original songs by Aimee Mann (which feel as fresh as the moment I first heard them), compliment like no other soundtrack. Her compassionate and revelatory voice lead each character toward realization and reconciliation, enabling them to walk tall once again. Bruised and battered, P.T. Anderson’s players rise to the occasion, some more than others. But they all get the chance to sing. “And it is in the opinion of this narrator it can not be simply chance”, no not chance, that Magnolia still feels so transcendent.