Bloody Good

Nelson Muntz once left a screening of The Naked Lunch and proclaimed, "I can think of two things wrong with that title!" Director Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood has no such flaw. It's not a blood-soaked Tarantino-esque "exploration of violence" or somesuch where someone is getting shot every two minutes, but the title promises blood, and the movie delivers.

The real story here is Daniel Day-Lewis, who by this point simply must be included on any list of the all-time great screen actors. He's picked up a bucketload of awards so far for his performance here, and a lot of people figure he's the favorite to take home a second Oscar for it, too. After he was outright robbed of the Oscar for his mesmerizing turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, it's only fitting that he should win for There Will Be Blood, as he's pulling off a bit of the same trick.

Not that the performance is the same by any means, mind you. But the effect the performance achieved is. Look at it this way: it's much easier to create a compelling screen presence as an actor when you're playing the plucky, lovable underdog with a heart of gold. To wit, back in 1976, Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Rocky that the then-unknown Sylvester Stallone reminded him of a young Marlon Brando. And look how that turned out. It is much harder to create a character who is morally reprehensible, completely unsympathetic, and still be magnetic and appealing to an audience. Day-Lewis did it brilliantly as Bill the Butcher and does it again here. His performance alone makes the movie worth watching.

Of course, the movie has a lot more going for it, too. Paul Dano, best known as Little Miss Sunshine's older brother, plays a creepy revivalist preacher who butts heads with Day-Lewis's Daniel Plainview, and more than holds his own. Together, the two actors turn the movie into a fascinating exploration of the intertwining forces of capitalism and religion that helped to shape the 20th Century (and beyond) in America.

The movie is beautifully shot, as well. A burning oil well which is the centerpiece of one of the film's pivotal sequences is simply staggering, terrifying and beautiful at once. The long, often dialogue-free, sequences of men at work in the oilfields are terrific, as well, showcasing the machinery of the derrick, the men's role as mere cogs in that machine, and the harsh, brutal landscape in which they work. There is an amusing irony in the location; where for years Hollywood has used the desert of Southern California to stand in for any number of landscapes, here Anderson is using the desert of central Texas to stand in for Southern California.

And then there's the ending. It made me think back to the winter of 2000, when I saw Anderson's previous film, Magnolia, with its famously bizarre conclusion. Leaving the theater, I said, "Well, I don't know if that was the worst ending to a movie I've ever seen or the best, but it has the merit of being something I've never seen before." The same could be said here - some say the ending is terrible, some say it's great, but you're not likely to forget it for a long, long time once you've seen it. It's take me a while to process it, but I'm definitely coming down on the "great" side. It is a final confrontation between Day-Lewis and Dano, and it contains virtuoso work from both actors. Day-Lewis especially hits all the right notes. One of his lines from this scene is rapidly becoming a catchphrase, and perfectly eviscerates Dano's character in four seemingly nonsensical words. Another is destined to go down as one of the all-time great closing lines in cinematic history, a grand-slam home run to end the movie on, up there with Scarlett O'Hara's "Tomorrow is another day" and Some Like it Hot's "Well, nobody's perfect."