This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
ivyallie’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I just watched this for the second time and it was better than I remembered it being. And that's saying something, because I remembered it being very, very good. This is Paul Thomas Anderson's best film by a significant margin, but going further, one could make the case that this is the greatest film ever made.
I'm not going to do that because those kinds of declarations are fairly meaningless, but I will take a moment to say why I think it's so great.
First, it's well-written. The primary characters are completely lifelike, and the drama created by their interactions fuels an incredibly taut story. Like The Bridge on the River Kwai, much of the action is driven by a battle of wills between two incredibly stubborn characters, and that's a formula that can work magic when done well. Neither Daniel Plainview nor Eli Sunday are characters who we particularly want to see succeed, but both are so completely driven that the question of who will win is transfixing. The few significant events that occur for reasons outside their control arise naturally from the scenario, so never does any part of the conflict feel contrived. The story is impeccable and smart from beginning to end.
Second, it's beautifully photographed. Shots of Plainview in front of the burning derrick are the most familiar, but honestly you'd be hard-pressed to find an image in this film that isn't suitable for framing. These people know how to put a striking image onto film better than anyone since Kubrick.
Third, the acting is incredible. Daniel Day-Lewis predictably gets top billing, and his performance is unimpeachable. He captures everything from the subtle nuances of Plainview's feelings for his adoptive son all the way up to his most monumental outbursts of rage. The moment in which Plainview realizes that Henry is an impostor is by itself worth the highest accolades. But Day-Lewis shouldn't eclipse Paul Dano's incredible portrayal of Eli Sunday, because it is equally nuanced. Eli is a strange, unreadable character, he's clearly hungry for power but the degree to which he actually believes his gospel is never clear. Dano captures this perfectly, always bringing Eli right to the threshold of zealot/autocrat without letting him become clearly one or the other. Eli's more human side is captured beautifully as well, his moments of despair and pathetic weakness conveyed with absolute commitment. If there's a moment of bad performance in this film, I don't know where it is. I sure didn't notice one.
Fourth, the pacing. Yes, the pacing. The film gets off to a fairly slow start as Plainview goes through the tedious process of solo mining, but as the stakes escalate, the pacing speeds up to match. This all culminates in the incredibly tense and breakneck drill explosion scene, which unfolds and escalates at such a rapid clip that it makes my heart race. The final half-hour or so of the film likewise begins a slow wind down to the inevitable tragic ending, devoting long, unscored shots of Plainview lurching around his mansion, having won wealth but lost all meaning in the process. This in turn serves as another slow build-up, this time to the final fight between Plainview and Eli, again demonstrating the power of using a contemplative pace to highlight the intensity of an action scene.
Fifth, the score. The music in this film is absolutely phenomenal. The music in the well explosion scene is probably at least 50% of what makes that scene so intense. Another example of the score doing more than its fair share is the scene in which Plainview maps the countryside for his prospective pipeline. This is hardly an action scene in the traditional sense, but the score provides a suspense-charged sound that implies the undercurrent of the scene and foreshadows that something very significant is happening. And all this from a relatively small ensemble: there is no full orchestra with brass instruments blaring at dramatic moments, for the most part it's essentially chamber music. This is not a score that plays it safe; it breaks any number of Hollywood conventions. But it's better for it, delivering a completely unique sound that is also extremely compelling. For all his Radiohead-related fame, I think Jonny Greenwood deserves a lot more credit for this kind of work, because he's clearly one of the most inventive and effective film composers working today.
What else can I even say? Films are extremely complex things with thousands upon thousands of potential failure points. They require millions of man-hours to produce, far outstripping the amount of human effort that goes into most other forms of art. All too often the end result is something that doesn't justify the work that it took to create it. This is a case of the opposite, an artwork so profound and well-crafted that one feels nothing but respect and gratitude to all those who contributed to it.