We’re in that part of the film year when patience is necessary. While a few big cities have every Oscar hopeful cramming onto their screens, those of us residing in less populous burgs have to wait and wait. On a recent trip to New York, I have the opportunity to get ahead of the roll-out release schedule somewhat, but there are a whole slew of titles that have me drumming my fingers while giving sidelong glances at the calendar. Among them is The Phantom Thread, the reunion of director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, the latter purportedly in his final role before retiring from the screen. Digging up this old review seems a perfect way to bide my time. This was originally published at my former online home.
There are so many things to say about There Will Be Blood. It’s difficult because I want to bring up specific scenes and choices to get to the complexities of what Paul Thomas Anderson achieves here, the way the intricacies of his storytelling pile up, double-back and sometimes burst forth like a strangely artistic jack-in-the-box. But, as always in this space, I’m reluctant to devote too many words to the details of the plot, the twists of the story, the striking transformations of the characters. One the great joys of moviegoing is the surprises delivered, especially by the most wildly creative artisans of the medium, a category that should certainly include the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, so I’d rather not be one of those that undercuts those strange gifts of revelation by condensing them to a couple sentences to reinforce my own points.
So what can be said instead? There is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, an act of uncanny transformation, bracing focus and deeply realized characterization that manages to dwarf his previous efforts, a thoroughly astonishing thing to assert give the high caliber of all that prior work and yet I believe it whole-heartedly, almost breathless at the though of his riveting performance. There is the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, which seems to reinvent the very notion of movie scores with its bending sounds and insistent rhythms. There is the cinematography by Robert Elswit, gorgeous photography that tremors with life. Part after part after part can be named only as precursor to marvel at Anderson’s ability to assemble into something that is as wildly ambitious as the works that made his mark, and yet more tightly controlled, more locked in, more committed. This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s love letter to the splendor of movies, their endless possibility and satisfying reward.
Even when the film starts to rattle on its own rails with the extended final scene, the culmination of all the themes and deeply considered psychology, while it is jarring, even off-putting, it is a less of an affront and more of strange invitation. The tone is different, the performances pitched in a drastically different register, the incidents of the film veering towards comedy, almost farce, and it becomes a puzzle to solve. What has happened here and why? Can it just be Anderson caving to indulgence or is there something more tactical going on? Anderson has spent the entirety of this long movie dazzling with the entire vocabulary of filmmaking: the opening reel free of dialogue, the epic, the intimate, the bellows of anger and the whispers of deep, punishing love. What’s one more wild trick? I’m not entirely convinced I can nail down what Anderson is trying to do in these closing minutes, but I feel it a little thrilling that the question is even there. And it’s worth asking.
It’s worth noting that one of the final credits on the screen is a note that the film is dedicated to Robert Altman. The two-and-a-half hours that precede this notice are filled with such audacity, vision, sprawl and tenacious devotion to wild narrative tendrils to the point of foolhardiness that it’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to that lost master.