Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective

By Jackson Maxwell


When looking for movies to enjoy in the crowded world of cinema, the general public has always gravitated towards films that give them a rush. Recently this rush has mostly been delivered by a towering fictional hero who dominates the screen, letting the audience accompany him or her on their newest fast-paced, explosion-filled, vaguely-morality-driven journey. And hey, I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t go see Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Rises” at its midnight premiere in my town last summer and absolutely love all 165 minutes of it. But there remain more unique cinematic voices that exist right on Hollywood’s fringe, acting as a refreshing alternative to the constant barrage of action-packed blockbusters.

Paul Thomas Anderson is not the world’s most prolific filmmaker. He has made only six feature-length movies to date. Nevertheless, all six of them, popular or not, bear his unmistakable stamp. Incredibly slow and deliberate, Anderson’s films are driven less by plot than they are by raw emotion. His films are deep, intense character studies that relish in the darker side of the human psyche.

Anderson’s idiosyncratic work rarely demonstrates overt influences, but he has previously stated his admiration for the work of Stanley Kubrick. If any line can be drawn from Anderson’s work to the films of another director, it is probably the work of the legendary “2001” director. In their most famous films – Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” – the directors juxtapose stunning, expansive visual palettes with an unwavering focus on the obsessions and mental disintegration of a lone man. “There Will Be Blood” tells the story of Daniel Plainview, a ruthless gold miner turned oil man and his quest for Rockefeller-like wealth and domination of the oil markets. The desolate landscape of early 20th century Southern California is presented in breathtaking form through Anderson’s lens. At the same time, he perfectly captures the demented essence of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance as Plainview.

Anderson’s earlier work relied less on any sole character than it did on the interweaving stories of an ensemble cast. Clocking in at three hours, and buoyed by an impeccably spun tale of coincidence, regret and the disintegration of parent-child relationships, “Magnolia” is an ambitious film even by Anderson’s lofty standards. Featuring an incredible cast anchored by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, John C. Reily and, in what may be his finest performance ever, Tom Cruise, “Magnolia” is simply a masterpiece. Twisting its way between the lives of a dozen or so different characters, the film dwells on the demons, the unattainable dreams and the haunted memories of the people who populate the film. Anderson effortlessly weaves these distinct stories and emotions in a cohesive narrative that almost never loses its momentum even after its 188-minute runtime.

Although Anderson has worked with many of the finest actors in Hollywood, he does have some go-to collaborators. Chief amongst them is Academy Award-winner Hoffman, who has appeared in five of Anderson’s six films. Anderson’s most recent film, “The Master,” is probably the best example of the incredible chemistry Anderson and Hoffman have formed over the years. The film focuses on a young, alcoholic and emotionally unstable WWII veteran named Freddie who meets Lancaster Dodd, the mysterious leader of a movement known as “The Cause.” Dodd (Hoffmann) takes a liking to Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), and inspires him to join the movement and become his protégé. Although the film is not without its faults, the space Anderson gives Hoffman and Phoenix to forge their characters’ path makes the film memorable. Dodd exploits the unhinged enthusiasm Freddie shows for The Cause, and dominates the younger, more vulnerable man. The chemistry between Hoffman and Phoenix is absolutely electric and Anderson captures it brilliantly.

More so than almost any other Hollywood director, Anderson is willing to take risks. His breakout film, the now-legendary “Boogie Nights,” challenged taboo by documenting the rise and collapse of the Los Angeles porn industry in the 1970s. He is not afraid to end a story without a full resolution, or test an audience’s patience with the pace of his movies. Unconstrained by expectations, Anderson is one of the foremost creative voices alive today.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]