Paul Thomas Anderson has a reputation as being one of the best directors in the world – which he has more than rightly earned. From Boogie Nights to Magnolia to There Will Be Blood, it is hard to think of a single film in his repertoire that has been anything less than masterful (pun intended). The following article contains some spoilers.
His first film was titled Sydney(1996), although the studio released it with the more commercial friendly name Hard Eight. The film only had a very limited release and received little attention, which is unfortunate because it really is a great, entertaining film-noir/crime thriller. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman – who would go on the star in all of Anderson’s films except There Will Be Blood – alongside Samuel L Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, this is a slow, dark piece which pulls (as Anderson does repeatedly) outstanding performances from all the actors involved.
He followed Syndey one year later with Boogie Nights(1997), a film about the career of porn star Dirk Diggler, in a performance that transformed the former New Kids on The Block member Marky Mark into Mark Wahlberg: a serious, marketable film star. The film featured a huge supporting cast including Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C Reily, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, William H Macy, Robert Downey Snr Thomas Jane, Julianne Moore, Alfred Molina, and Burt Reynolds in an Oscar nominated performance. Some critics were put off by its unflinchingly prolonged sex scenes (and a famous final shot showing Dirk Diggler’s assets), but Anderson constructed an intelligent drama about the price of fame, as Diggler slowly begins to lose his sanity and well being at the cost of his superstar status. With a runtime of 157 minutes, Anderson was able to tell the story he wanted to tell – and he was catapulted into the limelight. As well as launching the Hollywood career of Mark Wahlberg, Boogie Nights was the film that put Paul Thomas Anderson firmly on the map as a director to keep an eye on.
Boogie Nights was followed two years later with Magnolia(1999), a sprawling, gripping 187 minute epic following the intertwining lives of people in New York. Like Boogie Nights, it featured a huge cast: Tom Cruise (Oscar nominated for his performance – you can see the running thread here by now: Anderson gets the best from his actors time and time again), Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H Macy, John C Reily, Thomas Jane and more. It featured one of the best screenplays of all time, as Anderson tells a story like no other. I do wonder how the studio allowed him to get away with the 187 minute runtime, but aside from the huge cast and moderate $37 million budget, this was not a mainstream film, emphasised by the fact that it was only realised in 1086 screens across the USA.
Magnolia begins with a narrator explaining a series of bizarre and seemingly impossibly coincidental events, which apparently are completely true. This set up gives you an idea of the direction of the rest of the film. We meet an extremely strange group of characters, from self-help guru (a male motivational speaker who insists that men “Respect the cock!”) who needs even more help than his clients, to John C Reily’s troubled police officer who wants to find love. Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is an intelligent little boy whose father exploits by forcing him to appear on quiz shows as he knows the answer to everything. At the end of the film frogs fall from the sky, as was prophesised several times earlier in the film, although I do not think that the audience would have interpreted them literally. Although this seems like a supernatural occurrence, as the kid watching it points out, this actually happens in real life. But what. exactly, did the frogs represent? Were they meant to represent the characters in the film, mirroring the idea that the character’s lives were falling to pieces? In the film, the kid is the only one who is not startled by the frogs – he treats like a normal, everyday occurrence. Some have interpreted this to mean that he is a prophet like figure or caused it to happen. Ambiguity over this scene aside, Magnolia is a masterpiece of unfolding characters and story strands.
Anderson then made it clear that his next film would have a runtime of under 100 minutes. His next film was Punch Drunk Love(2002), starring Adam Sandler in a Golden Globe nominated performance. A complete change of direction for Anderson, the film was a light-hearted comedy about a man going through a midlife crisis, and finding love along the way. Essentially a romantic comedy, Punch Drunk Love works by twisting the genre conventions and being less obvious. A scene where the love-struck couple are agreeably telling each other how they want to smash each others heads in because they find each other so adorable manages to actually sounds romantic. An opening scene where a car comes out of nowhere and overturns occurs, then is never referenced again. Sandler’s character finds an abandoned harmonium in the street and takes it. A threat to him and his budding relationship is dealt with in a couple of scenes that veer brilliantly between showing how far a man will go for love and then how foolish confrontations between men can actually end up being. Punch Drunk Love is a comedy of sorts, but avoids being laugh out loud funny for a more thoughtful tone (although Adam Sandler spending half of the film puzzling over a special offer for air miles which just doesn’t make any sense is dead-pan funny.)
I give that short sentence a paragraph on its own because those nine words describe a momentous occasion. There Will Be Blood was a masterpiece on every conceivable level.
From its breathtaking opening shot of mountains accompanied by a horrid sounding screeching of guitar strings to make the viewer feel isolated, uncomfortable and to let them know that it they wanted to see a movie that would let them relax and have a good time, they had better run. Mark Kermode said in his review that he watched the film three times and at the end of the third viewing was blown away.
Approximately the first 20 minutes of the film featured absolutely no dialogue and really gave meaning to the phrase “actions speak loader than words”. Then, we finally hear Daniel Day-Lewis talk, in a voice that he modelled after John Huston after extensively listening to recordings of him speaking. Day Lewis’s performance in Their Will Be Blood is one the greatest performances of all time and he won the Oscar, Bafta, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award as well as EVERY other major acting award for it. He plays Daniel Plainview, who is probably the most greedy, selfish, cruel, egomaniacal character in the history of cinema. A borderline psychotic who cares about absolutely nothing apart from three things, himself, money and power. He does not even seem to care about his own family. On the IMDB boards, uses have suggested mental conditions with long, complicated names that they believe Plainview may have. Despite the fact that the audience should be terrified and disgusted by this character, Day-Lewis’s performance makes the character seem believable, real, sympathetic, and almost (emphasis on almost) likable. Hauntingly, it is easy to interpret Plainview as representing (in Anderson’s eyes) what all people really are actually like, deep down inside?
Paul Dano plays the dual role of twins Paul and Eli Sunday, although Paul is hardly in it. Originally Eli was going to be played by another actor who dropped out at the last minute, and so the decision was made to make the brothers twins and have Dano play both roles. He received a Bafta nomination for his mesmerizing performance, all the more impressive as he had less than a week to prepare for the role. Eli is Plainview’s rival, a priest who, like Plainview, only really cares about money and power and goes to extreme lengths to get it.
The film has messages about everything, from the wars being fought in the world today down to how “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Plainview and Eli, I think, represent everything wrong with society, two men who will stop at nothing to push the boundaries of their limitless greed. The film also has messages about religion, most notably in the title but also how Eli uses his abuses his position as a religious figure.
As well as Day Lewis’s Oscar win Robert Elswitt also won for Cinematography. Johnny Greenwoods haunting, powerful track was disqualified from the Oscars because it used sections of music from other songs, which I still find ridiculous. The film was nominated for Best Picture but lost to No Country For Old Men, which was admittedly a tough decision but let’s be realistic. No Country For Old Men is very, very good – but There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece.
What is even more infuriating than the Oscar snub is: following There Will Be Blood, Anderson couldn’t make another film for 5 years. Whenever he tried the studio would shut it down because they feared it wouldn’t make a profit – and yet they let Michael Bay direct Transformers for $200 million.
Eventually the billionaire Mary Ellison agreed to fund Anderson’s next project, The Master (2012 – read our review here), loosely based on the life of L.Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology and the auther of Battlefield Earth – the film adaptation of which won the Raspberry award for Worst Picture of the Year and later Worst Picture of The Decade. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Pheonix, Amy Adams and Laura Dern, we may well have another masterpiece on our hands.
Following this, Anderson will direct Inherent Vice, based on the detective novel of the same name, which will also be funded by Ellison. Anderson is rumoured to have entered into discussions with Robert Downey Jnr to play the lead role, Although Robert Downey Jnr is a very talented actor, he seems currently unwilling to appear in anything where he is playing a character other than Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes. Hopefully Downey Jr will get on board as, based on experience, we would be able to expect a show-stopping performance brought out of an already talented actor by a director famed for his ability to bring the best out of the actors he works with.
Paul Thomas Anderson has gives us some of the best films of the past sixteen odd years – let’s take some time to appreciate them.
Article by Davidde Gelmini
Additional material by David Ollerton