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Long Way Down

As warped as it is, this surrogate family is better together (still making new movies by the end) than they are apart. They are arguably much better off than if they’d stayed put with their actual families. Few characters in Anderson’s filmography do well with their actual families anyway, creating new ones instead. Magnolia, an even more expansive opus from 1999, depicts handfuls of families rent asunder by past cruelties inflicted by patriarchs.

There is Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall, in his second paternal role for Anderson, after Hard Eight), whose infidelities and possible molestation of his own daughter makes it so his wife is justifiably unwilling to spend time being sympathetic to him even as he suffers from terminal cancer. There is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), the TV producer whose callous treatment of his wife and son has led the child to grow up to be a misogynistic motivational speaker who inspires other men to treat women terribly in hopes of getting them in bed. And there is Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), whose son Stanley is gifted beyond belief, but who forces his son to utilize that gift on the game show Jimmy produces instead of being a loving father.

The fathers in this film, seen and unseen are truly toxic. Consider Stanley’s adult analogue, William H. Macy’s bespectacled character Donnie Smith. Donnie was (and is) just as gifted, and was the original “Quiz Kid” on the same game show. Now, he’s a desperately lonely gay man unable to find love, even at a local dive bar. We can only imagine how bad his childhood and father were. Only the elderly fathers in Magnolia try to gain some kind of redemption, though they don’t deserve any.

There Will Be Blood is both more sprawling and more intimate than either Magnolia or Boogie Nights. While it’s over 150 minutes, its primary focus is just one character, the tyrannical oil magnate Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Plainview begins the film as a simple prospector who strikes it big in the hills of California at the turn of the 20th century. The mostly silent first half-hour ends not just with Plainview’s first triumph, but also with him choosing to take on the role of father to the unnamed son of one of the men working with him, who dies in an accident on the job. Years later, the boy, H.W., sits next to Plainview when he works at his “family” business, going from town to town as he convinces people to drill on their land for black gold.

By the end of the film, a now-deaf H.W. is striking out on his own to Plainview’s fury and distaste; their last exchange includes Plainview shouting that H.W. was always just “a bastard in a basket.” In the film’s final moments, before Plainview has his last confrontation with the oily religious type Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), he seems to flash back to simpler times with H.W. His latent cruelty masks the reality that he did feel a closeness to the boy that he can never get back.

Sunday, it should be noted, often feels like another surrogate son, if a black-sheep type. Though he constantly butts up against Plainview, the two men representing religion and capitalism, Eli seems more aligned to the older man’s sensibility than that of his own father, who he derides as weak and stupid before physically attacking him at one point. Plainview, in the end, murders Eli, but only after Eli desperately comes to him, hat in hand, asking for help in a way he feels will be advantageous to both of them.

Anderson’s follow-up, the 2012 drama The Master, endured much controversy because of its unavoidable connections to the genesis of Scientology and its creator, L. Ron Hubbard. The character who Philip Seymour Hoffman plays in the film, Lancaster Dodd, isn’t exactly Hubbard, but the parallels are present. Yet the true focus of the film is on the undeniable, inexplicable bond that Dodd shares with vagrant and veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, in a career-best performance).

The two men are close enough in age so it’s not exactly a father-son dynamic, but Lancaster maintains a constant paternal air, and the film emphasizes a similarly constant sense that Freddie is trying to gain the approval of this enigmatic figure. So much of the film is oblique—their final meeting in London at first seems predicated on a call out of the blue from Lancaster to Freddie, until it becomes clear that Freddie only dreamed the call—but their dynamic, and the sense that Freddie is seeking a family to replace the one he lost after serving in World War II, is enough to make the film a thematic sibling to the other Anderson films here.

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(One Last Thing)

In a massive and fascinating oral history of Boogie Nights at the now-defunct site Grantland, Anderson’s longtime cinematographer Robert Elswit said, “Paul’s movies are about really one thing: families. They’re about someone trying to create a family, find a family, get rid of the one they have, create a new one.” Boogie Nights, more than the others, is very much about this notion of family, creating anew to replace the dysfunctional one that exists. In spite of the inherently ridiculous idea of a group of porn stars being a family, there’s nothing treated more seriously in the film.

Both in the film’s high moments—like one of the early pool parties at Jack’s house, which ends with Eddie revealing the name he’s chosen for his porn-star persona—and its low moments, Boogie Nights celebrates the idea of a group of like-minded individuals working together and gaining strength from that unity. Just as there were 20 years separating the release of Boogie Nights from the time period it depicts, we’re now 20 years removed from the film’s unveiling. Time has been exceptionally kind to this film, boasting some of its ensemble’s finest performances, from Wahlberg to Reynolds. Anderson’s career has expanded and grown more introspective, but Boogie Nights was, and still is, a blast of thrilling emotion, joy, vitality, and empathy.

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