Monday, 11 April 2022

MOVIE MUSINGS HAS MOVED - https://moviemusings.uk/

Hello! 

If you've come to the site, thanks for reading. I hope you have enjoyed checking at the reviews and that you've agreed with some and not been too annoyed by others.

My Movie Musings blog has now moved to a new home here:

https://moviemusings.uk/

Please come and join me!



Tuesday, 22 March 2022

The Big Short (2015)

Big finance is men shouting and people losing money in The Big Short

Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale (Michael Burry), Steve Carell (Mark Baum), Ryan Gosling (Jared Vennett), Brad Pitt (Ben Rickert), John Magure (Charlie Geller), Finn Wittrock (Jamie Shipley), Hamish Linklater (Porter Collins), Rafe Spall (Danny Moses), Jeremy Strong (Vinny Daniel), Marisa Tomei (Cynthia Baum), Tracy Letts (Lawrence Fields), Melissa Leo (Georgia Hale), Karen Gillan (Evie)

We all experienced the financial crisis of 2007, but very few of us actually understand it: above all perhaps, what the hell actually happened and why. That’s what McKay’s film – somewhere between drama, satire, black comedy and tongue-in-cheek infomercial – tries to resolve. Adapting a book by leading financial journalist Michael Lewis, The Big Short charts the whys and wherefores of the collapse, by focusing on the money men who saw the signs of the impending crash and bet against the booming economy.

Those men (and they are all men of course) are played by a series of actors enjoying themselves thoroughly playing larger-than-life characters who it’s never entirely clear if we are supposed to empathise with, sympathise with, cheer on or stand aghast at while they make fortunes from the ruin of others. I’m not sure the film does either though.

Christian Bale is the eccentric hedge fund manager whose analysis predicts the crash and takes eye-watering investment charges that will pay off thousands of times over when the crash comes. Ryan Gosling is a banking executive who understands that analysis and robs in Steve Carrell’s hedge fund manager to similarly invest to cash in (Carrell’s character, for all his misanthropic oddness is the only one truly outraged at the corruption in the system that will lead to the collapse). Brad Pitt is the retired trader roped in for “one more job” by young traders Finn Wittrock and John Magure to make their own bets against the house. They too will eventually realise the huge impact this will have on people – but are powerless to get anyone to listen as they try and warn against the pending disaster.

McKay’s film, with its tightly-controlled but surprisingly effective off-the-cuff feel (it’s stuffed with neatly edited jokes, straight to camera addresses and a constant running commentary from the characters on the accuracy – or otherwise –  of outlandish moments), may sometimes have the air of a slightly smug student film, but what it does well is explain the financials. If you were unsure about what CDOs, AAA ratings, Quants, credit default swops and sup-prime mortgage were before the start, you’ll have a much better idea later. Neat inventions describe this: from narration, to graphics, to Jenga blocks to famous people (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez among others) popping up to glamorously put things in other contexts.

The Big Short does this sort of thing rather well. Sure, it’s got a “lads” feeling to it – there is no “for the girls” equivalent to Margot Robbie in a bath explaining sub-prime mortgages – and the entire dialogue and pace of the film has a frat-house wildness that I suppose does reflect the tone of many of these financial institutions, which were little better than sausage parties. But it presents its ideas nicely and has some good jokes. The verité style McKay goes for is more studied than it natural – and it’s hard not to escape the feeling that the film is very, very pleased with itself, so much so that it’s not a surprise both his follow-up films  double down to various degrees on the slightly smug, self-satisfied liberalism here that sees those in power as corrupt, greedy, fools or all three and everyone else as innocent victims.

Where the film is less certain is exactly how it feels about its central characters. In other words, it doesn’t always turn the same critical eye on these people profiting from a disaster that will lead to millions losing their homes (the millions are represented by a single immigrant family). Brad Pitt may reprove his young charges from celebrating gains that will be the losses of millions of others. Steve Carrell gets several lines berating the callous, short-sighted greed of the banks. Christian Bale’s character is appalled by the “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” relationship between banks, investment ratings agencies and insurance companies, all working together to keep artificial profits up. But the film still wants us to celebrate as these plucky outsiders and weirdoes clean out the house and carry home cartloads of cash while the casino burns down.

Basically, the film is all good fun but gives us little to actually care about. It’s highly influenced by the gonzo macho representation of this world Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street gave us, but far less skilled than that film in presenting its players as the childish, amoral vacuums they are. Furthermore, it does far less to really look at the impact of what it’s doing: in fact, it spends so long delighting in how it tells the story, it doesn’t show us what happens. It dwells at the end on abandoned trading floors and closed banks, like the fall of the Roman Empire, but finds no time at any point to hear from a real person who lost their home.

Perhaps because the real impacts are too depressing – and would have made it impossible to feel the triumphal buzz the film wants from seeing its heroes vindicated and the smug assholes we’ve seen from the banks get egg on their face. It might have felt a lot less funny if we had seen even a closing montage of the real victims and the human impact.

It’s where The Big Short falls down and why it feels in the end like a student film made on a huge budget. It nods its head at real mature themes but actually isn’t really interested in them at all. 

Thursday, 17 March 2022

The Remains of the Day (1993)

Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are marvellous in this masterful adaptation from Merchant-Ivory

Director: James Ivory
Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Mr Stevens), Emma Thompson (Miss Kenton), James Fox (Lord Darlington), Christopher Reeve (Congressman Jack Lewis), Peter Vaughan (Mr Stevens Snr), Hugh Grant (Reginald Cardinal), Michael Lonsdale (Dupont D’Ivry), Tim Pigott-Smith (Mr Benn), Ben Chaplin (Charlie), Patrick Godfrey (Spencer), Lena Headey (Lizzie), Pip Torrens (Dr Carlisle), Paul Copley (Harry Smith) Rupert Vansittart (Sir Geoffrey Wren), Peter Eyre (Lord Halifax), Wolf Kahler (Ribbentrop)

Kazou Ishiguro’s Booker-prize winning novel The Remains of the Day is one of my all-time favourites. So, it’s not a surprise I’m a huge fan of this masterful adaptation from the House of Merchant Ivory. I’m certain this is the apex of the team’s work. Mike Nichols had originally planned a film but, wisely, recognised when it came to making movies about repressed 1930s Brits, one team had a monopoly on how to do it best. Beautifully adapted by their regular screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The Remains of the Day is a wonderfully involving and deeply moving film.

Stevens (Anthony Hopkins) is a butler in a British country house purchased in 1956 by American Jack Lewis (Christopher Reeve). Keen to solve staffing problems (and for no other reason at all), Stevens journeys to the West Country to recruit the 1930s housekeeper, Mrs Benn nee Kenton (Emma Thompson). During the journey, he remembers his service for the previous owner, Lord Darlington (James Fox). An impeccable gentleman, Darlington dedicates himself to reconciliation between Nazi Germany and England, eventually tipping into an unwise dalliance with fascism and appeasement.

Stevens had no views on that though. In fact, he prides himself on his anonymity. The goal of his life is to maintain a dignified unobtrusiveness, ensuring the smooth operation of everything, leaving as little a mark as possible. Nothing can intrude on that: not his own feelings, the illness and death of his under-butler father (Peter Vaughan) and, above all, the unspoken romantic feelings between himself and Miss Kenton. The Remains of the Day is about duty and obsession and how a fixation on both can leave someone with little to show from a long life.

Stevens is living the lessons he learned from his father, an ageing powerhouse masterfully played by Peter Vaughan, who undergoes a physical collapse (from dripping nose to dropping trays) and bouts of forgetfulness, eventually dying on a night Stevens is too busy seeing to the sore feet of an illustrious French guest to spare a moment to visit him. It tells you everything about his character that this stiff-upper lipped commitment to duty is a source of pride to our hero.

There are few as curiously blank ‘heroes’ in literature than Stevens. The narrator of Ishiguro’s book is a dull, fussy, unbelievably cold man who has dedicated himself so fully to duty that he has let any emotional life wither and die on the vine – something he only realises far too late. It’s an immensely challenging role, bought to life masterfully by Hopkins. Hopkins astonishing skill here is to play all that repressed coldness on the surface, but also constantly let us see the emotion, longing and regret he is subconsciously crushing down play in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. Is Stevens even aware how much self-harm he is causing? It’s an astonishingly subtle performance.

So subtle in fact that the books conclusion – Steven’s tear-filled confession to a stranger late at night of all the mistakes he has made – was filmed but cut for being superfluous. Hopkins had done the lot, all the way through the movie, through acting skill. You can’t miss the struggle within him, not least the desperate, powerless longing he feels for Miss Kenton that, for oh-so-English reasons he can never admit to himself. Hopkins has the vocal and physical precision, but every gesture tremors with unspoken, barely understood longings. In fact, it’s a shock when he exclaims an angry “Blast” after dropping a bottle of wine (the real cause of his outburst being, of course, Miss Kenton’s announcement that she is getting married)

He and Miss Kenton conduct a professional relationship that blossoms into something like a friendship – but he consistently rejects her polite efforts to take it further. In the film’s most powerful scene, Miss Kenton enters his parlour and playfully tries to see the title of the novel he’s reading (a sappy romance). The playfulness tips into agonisingly awkward tenseness as Hopkins’ Stevens seems paralysed, his hand lingering inches from her hair but unable to bring himself to break decorum and fold her in an embrace – all while Miss Kenton continues her increasingly desperate semi-flirtatious banter. It of course ends with Stevens dismissing her: just as later he will take a snap of frustration as a signal to irrevocably cancel their late-night cups of cocoa together.

Emma Thompson is wonderful as a woman only marginally more in touch with her feelings and longings than Stevens is: aware that she, eventually, wants more from life, but unable to find the way of communicating the love she clearly feels for Stevens in a manner he can respond to. Instead, the two of them oscillate between a friendly, affectionate alliance and a discordant arguments (their only outlet for their passion), rooted in their inability to admit their feelings for each other. To further stress the point, both of them mentor young staffers (played by a very young Ben Chaplin and Lena Headey) who have the youthful “what the hell” to jack in all this for love.

Ivory’s wonderfully subtle film makes clear this is a turning point in history, the final hurrah for the this sort of deferential hierarchy. Stevens is the last of a generation of butlers, convinced that what their employers got up to had nothing to do with them – views not shared by Tim Piggot-Smith’s more grounded Benn, who chucks in his job working for a bullying blackshirt (who else but Rupert Vansittart?). Throughout the 1950s storyline, Stevens is constantly asked if he knew the infamous Lord Darlington (a sort of Lord Londonderry figure, hopelessly taken in by Hitler) – in fact, like Paul, he twice denies ever having known him.

And you can understand why, as the film has sympathy for Lord Darlington. As his decent, liberal god-son Reginald Cardinal (an excellent Hugh Grant) says, Darlington is a great asset for Germany precisely because he’s honest, well-meaning and motivated by a desire for peace. The fact that his leads him to consort with a host of Nazis, Blackshirts and the most appalling anti-democratic vestiges of the upper-classes (at one point, Stevens selflessly gives a performance of geopolitical ignorance so as to help demonstrate why men like him shouldn’t have the vote) is an unfortunate side-effect.

Played perfectly by James Fox, Darlington is misguided but genuine. As war approaches, he leads an increasingly hermit like life – camp-bed and paper-strewn, messy library – hosting conferences denounced by Jack Lewis (a fine Christopher Reeve) as a host of amateurs talking about a world they no longer understand. Beneath it all, Darlington is guided by fair play. So much so, it’s almost distressing to see him (under the influence of an attractive German countess) reading anti-Semitic pamphlets and sacking two refugee Jewish maids – an act he later regrets (far too late). This moment also reinforces Stevens’ compromised pig-headedness (not his place to judge!) and Miss Kenton’s fear to act (she’s horrified, but to scared of unemployment to hand in her notice).

All of this culminates in a series of scenes where emotions pour out of the actors, even while their words are banal and everyday memories and reflections. Ivory was never more confident and skilled behind the camera, and the film is a technical marvel, beautifully shot with a wonderful score from Richard Robbins. Hopkins is phenomenally good, simultaneously pitiable and smackable, Thompson is wonderful alongside him, Fox and Grant perfect – it’s a very well-acted piece. And a wonderfully perfect capturing of a classic modern British novel. No doubt: the best Merchant Ivory film.

Monday, 14 March 2022

Kramer vs Kramer (1979)

Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry explore a tender father-son relationship in Kramer vs Kramer

Director: Robert Benton
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Ted Kramer), Meryl Streep (Joanna Kramer), Justin Henry (Billy Kramer), Jane Alexander (Margaret Phelps), Howard Duff (John Shaunessy), George Coe (Jim O’Connor), JoBeth Williams (Phyllis Bernard), Howland Chamberlain (Judge Chamberlain)

Kramer vs Kramer is a near perfect example of how time changes the perception of a film. On its release, it was the smash-hit of the year, scooping five Oscars. It took a sympathetic look at divorce and explored the then unthinkable idea that a single father could find fulfilment in taking on the woman’s role of caring for a child. Today, it’s more likely to be seen as a thinly veiled attack on feminism and a promotional video for Fathers4Justice. But a film can be a warm celebration of a father building a relationship with his child and an implicit criticism of women who want it all.

The film opens with Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) tucking her 7-year-old son Billy (Justin Henry) into bed, telling him she loves him, and then walking out of her New York apartment for good. She tells husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) – a workaholic advertising executive – she is deeply depressed and has to find what she wants from her life. Ted, a loving but distracted father, has no idea either how to raise his son or run a household. At first, he resents Billy for distracting him from his career, just as Billy resents him for being unable to care for him as Joanna could. Eventually though, Ted and Billy build a loving relationship, with Ted placing Billy’s needs first. At which point Joanna returns and demands custody, a clash that will lead to the courts.

Benton’s film, adapted from a successful novel, is shot with a chamber-piece richness by Nestor Almendros and signposts its arthouse credentials with a Vivaldi string score. It’s superbly acted. Hoffman (winning for Best Actor) is hugely committed, running a gamut of emotions from anger and despair to a joyful devotion for his son. Streep won Best Supporting Actress as the deeply-toen and conflicted Joanna. Hoffman and Benton draw superbly natural work from Justin Henry as Billy, an unaffected, completely unmannered performance. Benton marshals these three actors through a series of simply shot but often surprisingly affecting scenes, alternating between raw hurt, anger and tender forgiveness.

But this is a film that needs a sister film. Specifically, one that shows events from Joanna’s perspective. Although the film – at Streep’s insistence – tries to avoid demonising her feminist desire for more in her life than cooking and cleaning, it still gives short shrift to her departure. With the film’s focus on the heart-warming relationship between father and son, it’s very hard not to implicitly see Joanna as first a selfish abandoner and then a hypocritical antagonist trying to steal Billy. There is little attempt to not stigmatise Joanna as, on some level, a bad parent.

For all the film opens with a long hard look at Joanna’s face, struggling with the conflict between her depression and leaving her beloved son, there is no real effort to explain or understand what motivates Joanna to do the things she does. There are some half-hearted justifications very late in the film, during its courtroom sequences – but these only dip lightly into any turmoil Joanna must have been feeling. Worst of all, it’s all presented as something Ted has to learn to “forgive” rather than understanding it was a crisis he played a role in causing.

The film’s main focus is on Ted learning to become a father. Ted is a classic workaholic dad of the 1970s. He stays late at the office boozing with his boss, has literally no idea about Billy’s everyday schedule and is so inept at home that cooking French toast is completely beyond him. He has no idea about how to enforce rules with Billy, alternating between showering him with ice cream to keep him quiet and then vainly trying to re-enforce rules. (In a great scene, Billy slowly and deliberately sees how far he can push these rules as he first refuses dinner, fetches ice cream from the freezer and then starts eating it, all while Ted lamely states “Don’t you dare do that” – it ends of course with mutual screams of “I hate you”.)

What Ted does is learn to become a parent. Or rather, learn how to become a 1970s mother – since it’s a joke made time again that he is the only man dropping his son off at school, taking him to the park or attending his school play. Benton’s film takes some decent pot shots at the poisonous masculine world of work, as Ted eventually loses his job for letting his single-minded focus shift towards his son – his boss offers no sympathy at all for a man whose mistakes are due to his distraction by “woman’s work”. And the Ted at the start of the film would have agreed.

The relationship between Hoffman and Henry is beautifully played, a gently paced but very naturally flourishing of love and acceptance between two people who have had their lives shattered in different ways. The Ted we met at the start could never have run several blocks to the emergency ward, carrying an injured Billy (shot with a one-take urgency by Benton) – and then point-blank refused the doctor’s suggestion he needn’t bother staying with his son while the wound is stitched up. That Ted wouldn’t have taught Billy to ride a bike or helped him learn his lines for the Halloween play. For all its dated attitudes at times, the film deserves praise for the way it stressed that men could – and should – be this involved in the lives of their children.

It should be noted that Hoffman, at the height of his method dickishness, smashed a glass in this scene without warning Streep he was going to do it - her shock was real. Hoffman also made Henry cry for camera at one point by telling him, when filming was done, he would never see any of his new 'friends' on the set again. You see now why he was perfect for Tootsie?

But it’s not perfect. The final act, with the return of Joanna, sees both parents gearing up for a paternity battle– and having watched Ted and Billy spend nearly an hour and 20 minutes build a heart-warming relationship, we know where our sympathies lie. Even at the time, lawyers denounced the viciousness and one-sided result of this court case, which seems inexplicable given these two parents live only a short-distance apart with similar salaries. Not that it matters as the film ends with a puff-piece Hollywood fiction moment, as Joanna bravely sacrifices her custody because she recognises she can’t take Billy from his home.

Of course, what the film doesn’t do is acknowledge that Joanna spent essentially seven years doing the sort of all-consuming parenting Ted has only just discovered in the last 18 months. Neither does it do much to avoid suggesting Ted taking these tasks on is an astonishing act of character, just as Joanna abandoning them is an act of calculated selfishness. That’s not to attack the obvious love Ted discovers for his son. He even – eventually – confesses to his son that Joanna’s leaving was his fault for taking her for granted. But the film is so taken-up with the (admittedly beautifully done) relationship between father and son, that it neglects any exploration of the wife and mother beyond her (twice) being a cataclysmic event in their lives.

But it’s a film of its time. And in trying to at least show a divorce where no one was too much at fault and stressing a father could be as much of a parent as a mother, it was trying to do a good thing – even if it sometimes looks like an elderly relative who clumsily says something offensive while trying hard to be open-minded. The three leads are superb and the film has some genuinely heart-warming moments. It looks more and more flawed at times today, but this was trying to do something very daring. And nothing dates worse than daring.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

Chris Hemsworth takes on hunger, the sea and a very big whale In the Heart of the Sea

Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (Captain George Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Tom Holland (Thomas Nickerson), Brendan Gleeson (Old Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Michele Fairley (Mrs Nickerson), Gary Beadle (William Bond), Frank Dillane (Owen Coffin), Charlotte Riley (Peggy Chase), Donald Sumpter (Paul Mason), Paul Anderson (Caleb Chappel), Joseph Mawle (Benjamin Lawrence), Edward Ashley (Barzillai Roy)

1820 and the world is run by oil. Not the sort you get out of the ground, but the sort you fish out of a whale’s corpse with a bucket. America is the leading exporter of whale oil and Nantucket is the centre of the industry. But it’s a dangerous business: as the crew of the Essex are about discover. Attacked by a whale, their ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from land. Passed-over first officer Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and privileged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) must set aside their differences to lead the survivors to safety. But starvation and desperation will lead those survivors to ever more desperate acts. All of this is told to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) by final living survivor Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland and Brendan Gleeson), and it all sounds like a perfect inspiration for that Big Whaling Book Melville wants to write.

That Melville framing device is a good place to start when reviewing the many problems of In the Heart of the Sea, Ron Howard’s misfiring attempt at a survivalist epic. When we should be consumed by concern at whether these men survive, the film keeps trying to get us care as much about whether Melville will write a novel worthy of Hawthorne. The clunky prologue eats up a good sixth of the film, and we keep cutting back for Gleeson to tell us things the script isn’t deft enough to show us. Worse, it keeps ripping us way from the survivalist story that should be film’s heart.

Howard should know this: he directed one of the best survival-against-the-odds films ever in Apollo 13. Maybe the difference is that Apollo 13 is, at heart, a hopeful story. In the Heart of the Sea is about grimy sailors in a trade the film can’t find any sympathy for, eventually drawing lots in a long boat to see who is going to get killed and eaten by the others. It’s the sort of thing Werner Herzog would (pardon the metaphor) eat up for breakfast. For Howard, a fundamentally optimistic film-maker, its an ill fit. No wonder he wants to end the film with the triumph of Moby Dick.

In the Heart of the Sea is the rare instance of a film that is too short. The narration keeps skipping over time jumps in the first hour, that means we don’t get invested in the characters (most of whom are barely distinguished from each other, especially as beards and wasted bodies become the uniform). The sinking doesn’t take place until almost an hour in the film, meaning the time we spend with them lost in boats is a mere 40 minutes or so.

That is nowhere long enough for us to get a sense of either the monotonous time or the ravages hunger and desperation have made. Difficult as that stuff is to film – and I can appreciate its hard to make five men sitting, dying slowly, in a boat visually interesting – it means the film is asking us to make a big leap when it goes in five minutes from the men leaving a stop on an abandoned island to regretfully slicing one of their party up for dinner. We need to really understand how desperation has led to this point, but the film keeps jumping forward, as if its impatient to get to it.

Understanding is a general problem in the film. It can’t get past the fact that, today, we don’t see whaling (rightly so) as a sympathetic trade. But to these men, plunging a harpoon into a whale wasn’t an act of barbarous evil. It was more than even just making a living: it was a noble calling. Several times the film makes feeble attempts to push its characters towards moral epiphanies which seem jarringly out of chase (would Owen Chase, a hardy whaler with multiple kills, really hold his hand when confronted with a whale he thinks is trying to kill him?). Clumsy parallels are drawn between the heartless corporate oil industry of today, and the ‘suits’ back at Nantucket who only care about the bottom line.

Without accepting that, to these men, striving out into the ocean to bring back whale oil was as glorious a cause as landing on the moon, the film struggles to make most of the earlier part of the film interesting. Hard to sympathise with the characters, when the film is holding their profession at a sniffy distance. The film even radically changes the future career of its hero, Owen Chase, claiming he joined the merchant navy and never whaled again (not remotely true).

On top of this, Howard doesn’t manage to make the act of sailing feel as real or as compelling as, say, Peter Weir did in Master and Commander. Everything has a slightly unconvincing CGI sheen. Strange fish-eyed lenses keep popping up zooming in on specific features of pulleys and sails (is it meant to be like a whale’s eye view?). The film never manages to really communicate the tasks taking place or the risks they carry. There is a feeble personality clash between Pollard and Chase that fills much of the second act of the film, but is written and acted with a perfunctory predictability that never makes it interesting.

You can’t argue with the commitment of everyone involved. The cast noticeably wasted themselves down to portray these starving dying men. But it all adds up to not a lot. Chris Hemsworth gives a constrained performance as Chase – his chiselled Hollywood bulk looks hideously out of place – while Cillian Murphy makes the most impact among the rest as his luckless best friend. But the film’s main failure is Howard’s inability to make us really feel every moment of these men’s agonising suffering and to really understand the desperation that drove them to lengths no man should go to. Eventually that only makes it a surprisingly disengaging experience.

Friday, 11 March 2022

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis triumphs in Paul Thomas Anderson's incomparable masterpiece There Will Be Blood

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Eli Sunday/Paul Sunday), Kevin J. O’Connor (Henry), Ciarán Hinds (Fletcher Hamilton), Dillon Fraser (HW Plainview), Russell Harvard (Adult HW Plainview), David Willis (Able Sunday), Hans Howes (William Brandy), Paul F. Tompkins (Prescott)

Citizen Kane’s original title was “American”. David Thomson observed perhaps there hasn’t been another film so deserving of that title until There Will Be Blood. This is one of those once-in-a-decade films, possibly the greatest American film of the twenty-first century and Anderson’s career-defining masterpiece. It’s a gripping exploration of what makes America tick, captured within the self-destructive greed and hunger for power of one man. It’s a stunning piece of work, a cast-iron masterpiece, that takes a stack of influences and reinvents them into something fresh, daring, bold and above all unrepeatably unique.

Adapted very loosely from Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil, the film follows thirty years in the life of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), a misanthropic and fiercely ambitious empire-building oil man. Running a ‘family business’ with his adopted son HW (Dillon Fraser) – the boy’s father having been killed in a drilling accident – Plainview takes up a sea of leases across California. The film focuses on his exploitation of a rich seam under the community of Little Boston. A very religious community – dominated by the strong-willed Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), almost a mirror image of Plainview’s monomania – Little Boston becomes the setting for Plainview’s struggles with men and land, in a growing cacophony of drama that inevitably (as the title promises) builds towards an explosion.

Watching it you can see the inspirations. It reflects The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which Anderson watched endlessly in preparation) in its chilling exploration of the impact of greed and Plainview is the grandfather of Charles Foster Kane. It’s set in a Fordian west, but filtered through the unique vision of Kubrick. But it’s not a slave to these: it’s a truly original work, an off-kilter epic, shot with a stunning beauty that’s half poetry, half gothic horror by Robert Elswit. It sounds like no film ever made, a deeply unsettling score that mixes discordant rhythm and baroque-inspired strings by Johnny Greenwood.

And it has two geniuses at its centre. Anderson, a director best known for large-scale ensemble pieces, inverts his style to focus on one single misanthropic force of nature, a man who sees people as only tools or rivals. His film hits every note from near silent-cinema expressionism, to Grand Guignol fever-dream intensity. It’s shot with an all-consuming urgency, long-takes of fluid camera movement, mixed with interrogative still shots. The film digs itself into your soul, takes hold and doesn’t let go. It’s at times as darkly funny, as it is horrifyingly bleak. No one else could have made it.

And no one else could have played Plainview. If There Will Be Blood cemented Anderson as one of the leading directors of the early 21st century, it confirmed Day-Lewis as the era’s greatest actor. Day-Lewis is beyond superb here: this is the sort of, epoch defining performance you see only a few times in your life. Hunched forward, like a man constantly on the move, dark eyes gleaming and his voice a malevolently rolling John-Huston inspired baritone, Day-Lewis makes Plainview a misanthropic monster. He’s articulate, instinctive and destructive. Achieving his dreams only makes him even more inhuman and bitter. And Day-Lewis makes clear the stunted, half-grown creature under the skin of the confident businessman.

It’s clear he’s desperately lonely, but seemingly only has enough humanity in him for one relationship at a time – even then, people still must serve a purpose. HW – and later Henry, the man who arrives on his land claiming to be his brother (a wonderful inscrutable performance from Kevin J O’Connor) – become props in the family business. Plainview reaches out to them for emotional connection, but it’s all one way. When an accident robs the young HW of his hearing, Plainview is incapable of caring for him – he treats the deafness like a betrayal. He banishes HW, just as he will banish and punish all those who he sees as betraying him, including Henry. There isn’t a scene that doesn’t have a piece of performative magic from Day-Lewis.

Alongside this genius, Anderson’s subject is America. It’s a stunning exploration of how capitalism, greed and an insatiable hunger for more – be it money, land, power or anything else worth a jot of value – has shaped the country. Plainview is the dark soul of pioneering American entrepreneurial spirit, obsessed to the elimination of anything else, with accumulation. Oil is the life blood of the country, God’s own gift of power wrapped in a dangerous black liquid. It’s pumping through the country’s soil, and to control it is to control the country’s circulation. It’s Plainview’s faith – and it’s the faith of all these men forging an empire out of the ground, motivated by the desire for more. It’s partly why the film is so focused on men – because it’s always grasping men like this, titans of industry, who shape the dark soul of our civilisation.

Nothing will please Plainview until he controls all around him, confessing in a quiet moment (there are no words for how brilliantly unrepentant, yet also strangely regretful Day-Lewis is in this underplayed scene) that he has “a competition within him. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.” Like the country itself, he has forged himself from nothing through naught but will-power and a determination to never know failure. There Will Be Blood argues that, much as we might want to think otherwise, America is built on the backs of men like Plainview – monsters with the vision and determination to turn a desert into a city.

God himself has no place in these calculations. Anderson contrasts the obsessive sweat of Plainview with the dogmatic and vainglorious Christianity of Eli Sunday (a brilliantly weasly Paul Dano). Eli’s church is a haven of evangelistic worship and showmanship, which Plainview immediately finds disgusting (does he recognise another expert peddler of bullshit?). Eli has a moral arrogance and as much as a desire to control as Plainview, and the battle that grows between these two for dominance not only shows the ruthlessness of both men, but also reflects the struggle between religious obligation and Mammon that has run through America’s history.

The rivalry between the two men revolves around three crucial confrontations. Having effectively robbed valuable land from Eli’s family for a pittance, Plainview then humiliates Eli, forcing him head first into the mud, refusing to allow him any influence over his dig. Eli’s revenge comes in spades: controlling a vital piece of land for Plainview’s pipeline, he demands Plainview comes to his church to be rebaptised. The resulting scene sees him goad, provoke and demean Plainview for his sins, forcing Plainview into a series of humiliating confessions (both actors are earth-shakingly brilliant).

Their final reckoning closes the film – and is both its most controversial and overblown sequence. Jumping forward fifteen years, to Plainview’s sprawling mansion (where Day-Lewis has become a dishevelled hermit, his misanthropy unchecked and his victories only confirming his loathing of humanity) it’s the famous ‘milkshake’ scene, played with the sort of OTT intensity only Day-Lewis could risk and which the film has carefully built us towards accepting. Blood-dripped in a Kubrickian setting of a bowling alley, it’s the final expression of two men’s mutual hatred and views of a world – Eli’s that it owes him something for his faith, Plainview’s that he controls it through will alone.

Only a film that has built on such firm grounding of escalating tension and excess could make such a scene a success. This is a film that starts with a near-silent 15 minutes, of Plainview hammering with a pickaxe obsessively in the belly of the country’s soil. It ends – after a long journey that has seen Plainview wheedle, steal, bully and grasp – with him entombed again, this time in his mausoleum of a home, no daylight allowed and the air filled with Plainview’s hate-filled rants. Along the way, we’ve seen the plains of California as a place of dreamy beauty, marshalled to the will of one man to control all around him, scenes of striking beauty and haunting intensity.

There Will Be Blood is a masterpiece, an inspired parable for American history, a showcase for one of the greatest actors of his generation to redefine his craft and a marvel of character study, epic vision and haunting lyricism from its director. There is not a false note in it and it stands towering as a landmark in American film history. The greatest American film of the 2000s? Possibly yes.