If one film in Paul Thomas Anderson’s body of work will go down in history as an undisputed masterpiece, it is 2007’s There Will Be Blood. The movie showed up on more decade-end “best of the 00s” list than any other title, cementing its legacy just a few years after its release. Ten years later, its reputation has only grown.
This is Anderson’s first adaptation (the film is loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!) and his first film to not tap into his typical stable of actors. There’s no John C. Reilly or Philip Baker Hall. No Philip Seymour Hoffman or Luis Guzman. Instead, he joined forces with the legendary Daniel Day Lewis and 23-year-old Paul Dano to craft a story about two men battling for the soul of America in the 1900s.
There Will Be Blood is a dark exploration of greed and ambition through the prism of religion and capitalism, two forces that have grown even more destructive over time. Despite its historic setting, this movie will never be thematically out of date.
Nothing in Anderson’s previous filmography hinted at the gritty authenticity and classical moviemaking on display here. He makes elegant use of wide open spaces to paint a portrait of a country brimming with good and bad possibilities, and stages some truly breathtaking set pieces. A sequence depicting the explosion of an oil derrick is an all-timer.
Daniel Day Lewis, of course, gives a towering performance as a man slowly selling his soul. His Daniel Plainview doesn’t start as a villain. At times you’re very much on his side. But success and jealousy eat away at him until he’s hollow inside.
Paul Dano’s preacher, Eli, is an equally flawed man, no less greedy than Daniel in his own way, interested in collecting souls rather than land. The explosive confrontations between the two men are among the movie’s highlights.
There Will Be Blood has many grandly impressive moments, but just as many small grace notes. This time around I was struck by the elegance of a late shot of two children jumping off a porch cutting to the same pair’s wedding day. Or the quiet scene where Daniel bonds with his new son, the baby curiously reaching for his moustache.
The film landed eight Oscar nominations, winning for Best Cinematography and Best Actor. Anderson received his first Best Director nomination and third Best Screenplay nomination, but went home empty handed. The movie had the misfortune of coming out the same year as another masterpiece, the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, or else it might have swept.
Regardless, There Will Be Blood has already earned a place among the great American movies of the century, and I suspect time will only deepen the appreciation for this incredible film.