Paul Thomas Anderson is widely regarded as one of the most distinctive auteurs of our time. He has created an inimitable style of filmmaking applauded by peers, critics and audiences alike. No one else is making cinema that looks quite like Anderson’s. Like many great filmmakers, however, this is a feat that took Paul Thomas Anderson several years to accomplish. The Anderson who has just released the sublime couture-themed period drama Phantom Thread is a very different artist from the one who began making movies in the mid-‘90s with the neo-noir Hard Eight.
It’s possible to pinpoint the moment Paul Thomas Anderson evolved from a promising young director into the landmark auteur he is today: the arrival of There Will Be Blood ten years ago. The film, which returns to select cinemas as part of the Park Circus Paul Thomas Anderson 35mm tour, was an instant classic. Few movies since have impacted popular culture in the way There Will Be Blood did upon its release in February 2008. It is not only Paul Thomas Anderson’s highest grossing movie to date but remains his most critically acclaimed. Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and The Guardian all named it their favourite film of the decade.
Prior to There Will Be Blood, the story of power-hungry oil prospector Daniel Plainview and his rivalry with the preacher of an oil-rich town Eli Sunday, Paul Thomas Anderson tended to use his filmmaking influences as a crutch. His 2000 film Magnolia borrowed Robert Altman’s signature style: rapidly cutting across multiple storylines. Meanwhile, his sophomore feature Boogie Nights owed much of its kinetic energy to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. It captured Hollywood’s porn industry with a similar visual language to how Scorsese immersed viewers in the New York mafia: sweeping crane shots, dramatic push-ins and dynamic whip-pans.
This is not to say that Paul Thomas Anderson’s earlier work, which also includes the offbeat romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love, is not great. It is intelligent and thrillingly ambitious. But something shifted with the creation of There Will Be Blood. Slate critic Dana Stevens put it best: “Even those who of us who have always admired Anderson’s work never suspected he had anything like this in him.”
Paul Thomas Anderson took what might be termed a more mature approach to storytelling for There Will Be Blood. Anderson, by reigning in the flamboyance, gained the assurance to let his actors drive the story. Many scenes in There Will Be Blood, such as Eli’s bizarre sermon in which he ostensibly exorcises a demon from an arthritic woman, are shot from a distance in long takes with minimal camera movement.
In doing this, Anderson gifts his actors with the freedom to experiment – an opportunity the film’s leads Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano relish. They don’t feel restricted by blocking or choreography; they can pull a scene in surprising and unusual directions. Anderson would later carry this same wisdom into The Master, Inherent Vice and Phantom Thread. As Katherine Waterson told Entertainment Weekly about her experience filming Inherent Vice: “He doesn’t walk onto set with a clear goal. It didn’t feel chaotic; it felt thrilling. Like you are going into a question together.”
With There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson found a more sophisticated, less grandiose way of telling stories. That does not, however, mean his movies became any less cinematic. They all demand to be seen on a big screen. From the sparse Little Boston landscapes to the intense close-ups on his performers’ faces, few directors are able to conceive shots like Paul Thomas Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit. Seeing it in a cinema, especially on a 35mm print, enunciates the power of these images.
Anderson’s films were not designed for a small screen or to be viewed from the comfort of your home. Watching them on 35mm at the cinema is to see them again as if for the first time and to truly understand his emergence as one of modern cinema’s best filmmakers.