My summer with Paul: On "There Will Be Blood" (2007) and prestige pictures

I remember when the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood dropped in the fall of 2007.  It had been approximately five years since Anderson’s last movie, but it felt like an eternity ago, long enough that I wondered if something had happened to him, and whether he would still know what he was doing.  I watched the trailer and my heart sank further.  What was this Oscar-bait prestige-picture costume drama supposed to be?  Frankly, it looked boring—the last word that I thought would ever have to use to describe a PTA movie.

The film came out at Christmas.  The groundswell of critical support for the film and its bid for the Oscars made me even more suspicious that Anderson had sold out.  Then I read Glenn Kenny’s four-star review of the film for Premiere.com, in which he called it “an absurdist, blackly comic horror film.”  My interest was immediately piqued.  It became the film that I couldn’t wait to see.  Then I actually saw the thing.  As has so often been my response to Anderson’s films, my initial impression was one of dizzy amazement, coupled with a feeling that I needed to see it again before I could begin to sort out what I thought about it.  I went back and saw it a second time in that same week.  (This was at the Athena Cinema in Athens, Ohio, where I was getting my Master’s degree at the time.)  When I walked out of the second screening, I was more firmly convinced that There Will Be Blood was a masterpiece.  And it was clear that, Oscar nominations or no, this was no prestige picture. 

Anderson’s trick was in making a period film that looks like something by, say, John Ford but feels like something by, say, Stanley Kubrick.  It looked expensive and felt important.  Its epic scope, heavyweight performances, and Serious Themes meant that the members of the Academy—as well as more middlebrow film critics and moviegoers—had to pay attention to it, and may have convinced them before they sat down that this was a great film.  But its greatness has less to do with its classicism than with the faint air of hysteria that slowly takes over the film from about the one-hour mark on and culminates in a bloody, funny, magisterial final scene that only Anderson could have dreamed up, or pulled off.  Anderson’s penchant for hysteria, his willingness to push scenes just past the point of good taste in order to deliver something sublime and outrageous, is antithetical to the sensibility of the prestige picture, which traffics in restraint, propriety, and a vaguely invisible style.  (Can the “style” of films like My Week with Marilyn and The Imitation Game be described as anything but invisible?)  There Will Be Blood wasn’t a departure for Anderson, nor was it a sell-out.  It was an ingenious bait-and-switch game in which Anderson managed to smuggle a film as strange and daring and outsized as Magnolia or Punch-Drunk Love into a package that looked glossy and safe.

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