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Jean Bethke Elshtain

There Will Be Brilliance

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson surpasses himself.

Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is to generic movies as Mt. Everest is to an anthill: it towers over what we ordinarily regard as an entertainment. One of our most quirky, ingenious, and religiously steeped filmmakers, Anderson has crafted a dark work of enduring power that features one of the great defining performances in the history of film, Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview. Nothing in Anderson's previous work quite prepares us for this. Certainly there are hints in Magnolia, with its themes of redemption, revenge, and forgiveness—notable, in part, for Tom Cruise's brilliant performance in a supporting role. But all the players are superb, especially the inimitable John C. Reilly, whose performance is steeped in a pathos that never turns banal. The interlocking stories of Magnolia conclude with a torrential downpour of … frogs! When I saw the film in a theater in Chicago, there were murmurs of perplexity from exiting filmgoers. "Like, what the hell was the frog thing about?", I overheard one fellow say, a statement objectionable for two reasons: first, the ubiquitous, distracting, and slightly demented repetition of "like"; second, the illustration of complete biblical ignorance. Ever hear of the plagues Moses called down on the Pharoah and Egypt?

As brilliant as Magnolia was, it seems a confection next to There Will Be Blood. Martin Luther told us that a "lonely man always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst," a quote that Hannah Arendt favored; for her, it illustrated the mindset of totalitarian ideologues as well as psychopaths. Daniel Plainview is one of Luther's lonely men, a brilliant, driven, stricken person who rivets us in his prime, then enthralls and repels us as we witness his descent into bitter, despairing, alcohol-driven isolation.

I suspect that filmgoers will either be put off or irresistibly drawn into the film from its opening moments. We see ...

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