I don't want to use P.T. Anderson's newest film to beat up on his old films, but I did want to mention a striking pattern of diminishing returns that I've experienced with the director: I very much like all of Hard Eight and I love some of it, I really like the first half of Boogie Nights and feel nothing much about the second half; I love the opening scene and anything involving John C. Reilly in Magnolia, but the rest is actively irritating to me; and by the time of Punch-Drunk Love, it's pretty much a matter of which shots I like in a film that I find borderline terrible. That trend hasn't been reversed so much as taken out and shot: thought it is not by any means without flaw, I don't think I'd take a single frame out of There Will Be Blood.

Ah, There Will Be Blood! The phrase positively rings with monosyllabic tension. Those four words simply don't roll of the tongue, they must be intoned, one by one, and in that mantra we find the whole stuff of the film: through all the greed and money and ambition that rules the character's lives, there is only one path to take, and at the end of that path there is neither redemption nor humanity. There is - there will be - blood.

The conventional wisdom is that There Will Be Blood is a terrifyingly unpleasant film for this very reason, but I'm not convinced. The story follows a very gentle arc: when we first encounter the protagonist Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), it is 1898 and he has just found a promising site to dig for oil. In 1902, he finally strikes. In 1911, he has become one of the greatest oil prospectors in California, when he is approached by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) about a town out in the desert where oil sits on the ground, and the great bulk of the movie takes up the months-long process by which Plainview turns the small outpost into a thriving oil boomtown, while tangling with Paul's brother Eli (Dano once more), the local revivalist preacher.

That is the raw framework of an essentially familiar story - the American Dream twisted into something vile by a man whose only desires in life are money and power. But There Will Be Blood is not at all familiar, for it has its core in a truly exceptional meeting of character and actor. Plainview is essentially a huckster, spending every moment selling himself to those he views as intellectually inferior. Thus, Day-Lewis is not only performing a character, he is performing a performance, as it were. He speaks in clipped tones that evoke John Huston, very businesslike and impersonal, and in the moments when he seems to allow his mask to slide a bit, he chokes on his words a little bit, as though he has forgotten how to behave naturally.

It's worth pointing out that in the beginning, before Plainview has become Plainview, he is not called upon to speak at all. The opening sequence, containing the events of 1898 and 1902, are essentially dialogue-free, ten minutes of visual narrative and lingering shots of desert landscape underscored by Johnny Greenwood's extraordinary modernist score. In a film full of dazzling cinematic technique, the opening might be the finest part: it is more than a little reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and hence all of Kubrick's films since, but it's not like much else out there.

Anderson is of course famous for cribbing from other filmmakers, notably Altman and Scorsese, and he continues that trend in There Will Be Blood, most notably quoting Welles in addition to Kubrick, but none of those references overwhelm the film. Rather, it adds to the texture of the film, granting a slightly old-fashioned texture that fits its self-conscious mythmaking very nicely.

Anyway, his aesthetic, though hardly revolutionary, is indebted more to the corpus of American filmmaking than to any one source in particular. The best parts of the movie do not work because they remind us of other films that work, but because the director has finally turned his almost preternatural skill with the camera to creating a mood and not a style. Hence there are endless long takes, like in all of his films, but they hide themselves in the beats of the story, so that we only notice them after they are over. The best recent analogue is Children of Men, which similarly uses minutes-long takes and deep focus to suck us into the film, although I'm tempted to say that There Will Be Blood, which uses the technique far more often, is much more anxious to create a reflective mood in the viewer, using those long takes to slow the action down to a halt in several cases. Never without reason: even if it's just giving us a nice long chance to watch Day-Lewis's impassive face as he ponders his plans, there is not a single instance where I found myself wishing that the movie would just get on with it.

One of Anderson's greatest weapons in this respect is his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Robert Elswit, turning in just about the best work of his career, almost enough to give Roger Deakin's extraordinary one-two punch a stiff challenge as the best of 2007. The highlight of the film, visually, is easily a nighttime sequence in which Plainview watches as a derrick burns to the ground, a sequence that could easily have gone for the simple prettiness of orange flames and a dusky sky, but instead achieves a kind of spiritual glow, foregrounding the idea that for Plainview, oil is religion.

The relationship between religion and rugged individualism isn't a secondary theme; it's a key component of the main theme, and it is for this reason that I forgive the film its final scene, which in many respects doesn't fit into the narrative at all. Besides showcasing Day-Lewis in the finest acting of his exceptional career, it rounds out the film emotionally, which we can hopefully all agree is better than rounding out the story. Even though it doesn't make much sense at all, it fits perfectly, and that is all I will say about it. It is better experienced than described.

As is the rest of the movie. Sometimes, a director's work is extremely dense and must be unpacked bit by bit; sometimes it is all right there to be plucked, and I feel this is one of the chief joys of There Will Be Blood: it is exhausting, but surprisingly accessible. Anderson is for once not trying to impress us but to give us an overwhelming experience, and his film is accordingly simple even as it is devastating. All the analytical power in the world can't explain the film any better than the film already has. It is frankly overpowering.