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There Will Be Blood

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Director Paul Thomas Anderson with Daniel Day-Lewis

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Last night I saw a screening for Paul Thomas Anderson's new movie There Will Be Blood (it opens in area theaters this weekend). During the first 15 minutes of the film, which were an exceptional 15 minutes, I was both thrilled and stunned.

Those 15 minutes have no dialogue. There are abrupt shots of stark desert landscapes, still and beckoning. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood composed the score and it shocks the system when you first hear it - with it's loud, discordant strings. It lends tension and momentum throughout, but during the opening scene you come to understand its centrality to Anderson's creative vision.

Then there is the opening action. The experience of mining for silver in a deep cavernous hole with rickety wooden stairs as the only escape. We move quickly to rudimentary efforts at getting oil from even greater depths. The darkness and muck, the viscous slop covering our protagonist, who we only see in shafts of light. It's claustrophobic. Whatever goes up, can easily come barreling down this narrow depth and Anderson's camera makes sure we see it all fall in force. We are in a hole, covered in oil, trying to breathe, fearful to look up. It's an unnerving, wholly effective sequence. It's also strangely beautiful in its power.

But the energy of this opening is not in its style. There are no fancy tracking shots, something Anderson is certainly prone to ( Boogie Nights ). It's in the drama of the work, the danger of the place, and the focus and determination of a character who has yet to speak one word.

You soon realize Anderson has made an old-fashioned movie epic and he's done so with tremendous skill. The story is based on Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel Oil! , which Anderson is said to have picked up in a London bookstore. He loved it so much, he decided to adapt it for the screen. It's really an odd choice for him, a young filmmaker whose earlier works, Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia , gave him a reputation as an edgy, very contemporary filmmaker. This is a period film with classic written all over it. He's conversing with the old masters here, not the young turks of the 90's or today.

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It helped Anderson's project that Daniel Day-Lewis plays his protagonist, Daniel Plainview. Plainview is, as he notes often, "an oilman... a family man." He's also an entrepreneurial rogue determined to make his fortune without the help of burgeoning oil companies like Standard Oil.

Plainview is powerful and shrewd, but not without charisma. Daniel Day-Lewis is Daniel Plainview in every gesture and word. I kept thinking about how penetrating his eyes were - not the eyes of Daniel Day-Lewis, but those of Daniel Plainview. I was so completely lost in his portrayal. It is, as many critics have already noted, a performance that will be talked about for years.

Plainview is not a man to be liked, though you do at times. It's hard not to respect his determination, couched as it is in our mythology of the American dream. But Plainview can too easily access his brutality, like Charles Foster Kane or Michael Corleone before him, in order to achieve and sustain his dreams of power and money. Anderson's film fits nicely in a lineage of films about America -- the story of capitalism, of individualism, of taming and exploiting the land, and of our country's long and complicated relationship with religion.

I thought No Country for Old Men was my favorite film of the year, and I'll admit to enjoying it more for its facility with suspense and clever, funny dialogue. There Will Be Blood is not as enjoyable; it's more visceral and penetrating, raw and powerful. It is a real achievement and I don't think I'll forget what it was like to see it for a long time.

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