2007 may be finished, but Daniel Day-Lewis sure isn't. With his towering performance in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, a devastating drama about oil, family and what happens when there isn't room for both, the 50-year-old Irish actor has become the undisputed frontrunner for this year's Best Actor Oscar.
It's 1898 when we meet Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview as a determined young man, utterly alone and silently slaving away in a dark, dynamite-filled mine where the solitude only serves to enhance his work ethic. After finding proof that great oil fortune awaits him, Plainview falls down a shaft and breaks his leg. But rather than dwell on the injury and give up his quest for power, he summons every last ounce of strength to pull himself out of the hole and drag himself across the vacant desert en route to cashing in on his discovery.
It's a stunning, wordless sequence made that much more terrifying by the rapturous score (courtesy of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood) that dominates it. It's a weirdly mesmerizing trance of jagged beats that acts like a separate character in the movie and is surely unlike any other film score.
As Plainview ages and amasses his wealth, there's a clear sense that he wants someone to share his success with. Opportunity presents itself when he adopts an orphaned boy (the wonderful non-pro Dillon Freasier), who provides Plainview with a family-man credibility that helps him sell his slick wares.
As the film's writer and director, Anderson floats the idea that mankind's greatest weakness is ambition. Plainview's appetites for wealth and the great power it brings are unquenchable. Same goes for Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), an earnest young preacher whose congregation is never big enough. Both want to live their own versions of The American Dream, but they repeatedly butt heads as the cutthroat businessman tries to build an oil empire on the blood, backs and property of Eli's nave neighbors.
Eli's good-natured faith in people makes him optimistic, and it's this compassion for his fellow man that sets Eli apart from Plainview, who has nothing but contempt for others.
As the despicable oil tycoon and cold-blooded family man, Day-Lewis gives an astonishing performance that serves to remind us of how unfortunate we are that such a talented actor chooses to work approximately once every leap year. Not every actor can hold his own opposite Day-Lewis (just look at Leonardo DiCaprio in Gangs of New York) but Dano does so effortlessly, summoning a ferocity during one sermon of which few actors of his generation are capable. A third star emerges in Robert Elswit's cinematography, which makes the wide-open desert vistas of the film's setting seem suffocating.
Though There Will Be Blood may be a difficult film to embrace, it is nonetheless a bold, bleak and brilliant masterwork that represents a staggering cinematic achievement for its gifted writer-director.
You won't emerge from this 165-minute blood-soaked epic raving about it. In fact, you might walk out of the theater shaking your head and wondering where your evening went. But give it some time and let it marinate. Chew on the ending for days and savor it long after. Daniel Plainview set out to embody the American Dream, but he'll haunt your dreams as the personification of the American Nightmare.