I sometimes despair of Hollywood, but then I'm reminded that Hollywood- as well as making drek like Transformers- also supports the career of Paul Thomas Anderson (and one or two others like him)- and that Anderson has just made a movie that can stand with the very best the American cinema has produced in the past 100 years.
Anderson's earlier movies were enormously clever and actor-friendly and maybe a little bit tricksy. None of them, I feel- not even Magnolia- quite achieves greatness. But with There Will Be Blood Anderson takes a huge stride forward. This is a very plain, untricksy film. It has the confidence not to muck about with the camera or shower us in computer-generated frogs. Instead it does what the very greatest movies have always done- it gives a set of actors something interesting to do, then watches them intently. The scale is at once epic and domestic. There are wonderful landscapes and geysers of flame, but we are always primarily interested- the camera insists we be primarily interested- in the people who are moving in front of them. I have no hesitation in calling it a masterpiece.
A film which features a sociopathic oilman wrangling a fradulent, charismatic preacherman over 30 years of the American century- each taking it in turn to humiliate the other- is surely making a large statement about the American soul. Or is it? Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian says it's about oil. But I don't think it's any more about oil than Citizen Kane is about newspapers- which is to say it is and it isn't. I've puzzled about this for 24 hours and come to the conclusion that what it's actually about is something even larger and more interesting than the soul of a nation or the history of an industry- namely the unfathomable weirdness of human beings.
In Daniel Plainview Anderson has created one of the cinema's greatest monsters- and given him to one of the cinema's greatest actors to interpret. Daniel Day Lewis's performance is extraordinary. It's big-boned, even histrionic- but it never makes you think- as great performances sometimes do- wow, look at the quality of that acting. If it's histrionic it's not because Day-Lewis is histrionic but because Plainview is histrionic. The actor is lost in the role. The superficial markers of character- the Scots-American accent, the stoop, the limp that gets progressively worse- seem wholly natural. We don't understand the man, we don't like him, but we experience him like weather- feel the baffling, quicksilver moments of his tenderness- against which he ultimately blasphemes- and the ever-present rage- shining from the eyes and tightening the muscles of the face- which at some stage of his pilgrimage- we cannot say exactly when- turns into a world and self destroying madness.
The Guardian (again) calls it the best film of the past decade. I think that's probably right. That the Oscar went to No Country For Old Men will come in time to seem as bad a misjudgement as that which favoured How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane.