Power, corruption and lies

Lead actor and director both shine in a drama dripping with foreboding.

There Will Be Blood (12A)
dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

The director and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey once told me of his disdain for Daniel Day-Lewis's acting. "All that screaming and hyperventilating . . . You may as well have a 'Men at Work' sign when he's on screen," he huffed, before undermining his case somewhat by claiming that Macaulay Culkin was the great screen presence of modern cinema.

There may be scepticism about the full-bodied Method style favoured by Day-Lewis, where a role is worth playing only if it requires you to translate Proust into semaphore, or survive in the Himalayas for a year on nothing but yak droppings. But whatever he undertook to play Daniel Plainview, a Californian oil prospector, in There Will Be Blood, it was worth it. His performance can be summed up as long, overcast periods interrupted occasionally by all hell breaking loose. He doesn't make us like Plainview, or even understand his emotional cruelty, but we absolutely believe in him. Three hours with this monster and we are also likely to experience a cinematic form of Stockholm syndrome.

When Plainview first strikes oil in 1903, it gushes violently, spattering the camera. A baby who gets a dab of the black stuff smeared on his forehead in a sinister baptism wails ominously. When the child's father dies, Plainview adopts him, and young H W (Dillon Freasier) grows into a watchful business partner. They receive a tip about some oil-rich land, which a naive owner is ready to flog for a pittance until his son, the budding preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), squeezes Plainview for a contribution. Soon Eli has established his church on one hill, dwarfed by Plainview's grinding derrick on another. So commences the battle between business and religion.

It is no coincidence that film-makers are drawn repeatedly to stories of men gone delirious with power, from Citizen Kane to Dr Strangelove and The Godfather Part II. The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has loosely adapted Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, knows this timeless rise-and-fall trajectory needs no embellishment. What he gives it is resonance, uncovering harbingers of today's turmoil in the early-20th-century oil craze: Plainview may begin the film as a humble miner, but he ends it staggering around a bowling alley that lends his mansion on the Pacific coast unmistakably presidential overtones.

As if the title were not warning enough, the film is dripping with foreboding, from the cacophonous score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, which often goes against the grain of whatever is on screen at the time, to the face-offs between Plainview and Eli, during which Anderson deprives us of any close-ups that might relieve the tension. The weedy Dano squares up to Day-Lewis manfully and is rewarded with a grandstanding scene of his own, writhing and wriggling as he casts out demons from his congregation. (I bet it turns up as a drama school audition piece before long.)

If there is a revelation in There Will Be Blood, it lies in the miraculous maturing of its creator. I am not being personal when I say that Anderson has always had a size problem. It was as though he chose the canvases for Boogie Nights and Magnolia before he had the paint or the discipline to fill them properly; those pictures had daredevil moments, but the proportions were all wrong. There Will Be Blood, his fifth feature film, is the real deal: everything is scaled to perfection. You could argue that the picture would be mercifully shorter without all those shots of Plainview stalking the dusty California landscape. But that would mean sacrificing the vital sense of how man and earth are intertwined, a relationship expressed beautifully in the ghostly dissolves between shots that give the illusion of people fading into the land.

Discussing scale without mentioning Stanley Kubrick is tantamount to perfidy, so I should point out that the picture strongly evokes that director's work - the long opening sequence, wordless but for primal grunting and clanging, recalls the beginning of 2001: a Space Odyssey, while the perversely anti-climactic pay-off is straight out of Eyes Wide Shut. But this is no simple homage. In its reach and intensity, and most of all its masterful visual eloquence, There Will Be Blood is the best Kubrick film that Kubrick never made.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty