Friday, April 11, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciaran Hinds, Kevin J. O' Connor

Running Time: 158 min.

Rating: R

**** (out of ****)

Yes, Paul Thomas Anderson's oil epic There Will Be Blood is as great as everyone says. But it's a fact I wasn't quite so sure of immediately. When it ended I knew I had seen a technical masterpiece but doubted if it was anything more than that or was even something I'd in good conscience recommend to anyone else. It's long, loud and drenched in despair.

In a year of depressing films this stands head and shoulders above them all as the most depressing. Then I woke up the next morning and found I couldn't shake certain scenes and images from my mind. After thinking it over it finally occurred to me that much like a lot of Anderson's output it's one of those slow burners that keeps coming back to you long after its over. It deserves to stand as an important American cinematic achievement of the highest caliber.

So far Anderson has directed five films and three of them (Boogie Nights, Magnolia and now this) could be considered masterpieces. That's not the part that's a big deal though, as plenty of other filmmakers could lay claim to that feat (but probably not at the age of only 37). The part that's so shocking and is an unparalleled accomplishment by any living director is that each of those three films have nothing in common. If they were blindly screened, you'd probably guess they came from three different filmmakers. Throw in the two other excellent ones (Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love) and it would just further muddy the waters. Skeptics claim Anderson is just mimicking his favorite filmmakers. Boogie Nights was his Scorsese. Magnolia was his Altman. This is his Kubrick. But that's simplifying things and not giving him enough credit. Others influenced those filmmakers and if Anderson's entire career is built on just merely imitation then how come his films are so great?

The shell of There Will Be Blood is tougher to crack than any of Anderson's other efforts, many of which were also written off as inaccessible at the time of their release. This could never be my "favorite" P.T. Anderson film but because of it his other work may have to be reexamined and will probably now play even better because of it. The Quentin Tarantinos, Wes Andersons and David Finchers of the film world are brilliant but I don't get the impression they're challenging themselves with every outing. You can tell Anderson really went out of his milieu here, pushing himself hard and making what should be a fairly dry story crackle with unique excitement and energy. What sets him apart from his peers is his versatility, something I don't think I ever fully appreciated until this film. As great as I thought he was, I never once considered he could have had a film like this in him.

Loosely based on Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood opens in 1898 when prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) accidentally stumbles upon oil deposits in one of his silver mines. We flash forward a few years later where Plainview, now the owner of his own small drilling company, is left to care for the orphaned son of one of his workers who died in an accident. He raises the boy, H.W. (a captivating Dillon Freasier) as his own and names him partner in his fledgling operation.

By 1912, Plainview emerges as one of the most successful oil men in the country competing with powerhouses like Standard Oil and is approached by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who gives him a lead on land in California belonging to his father Abel (David Willis). Plainview attempts to swindle the old man, but Paul's twin brother Eli (also played by Dano), an evangelistic preacher and faith healer, knows of the land's rich oil deposits and attempts to extract to the best deal possible from Plainview, one that would most benefit his church and the community.

At first, Plainview and Eli, while not exactly on the same page, at least seem to be reading the same book and reluctantly understand where each is coming from. Or so it appears. They begrudgingly tolerate one another until it becomes clear to Eli that Plainview's promises to him and townsfolk are hollow ones. It's all about money for this man. Faith and corporate domination don't exactly go hand in hand and as problems with Plainview's plans and a series of unfortunate accidents just increase the tension between them until it finally explodes…literally and figuratively. The film shifts in dramatically from being about the turn-of-the-century oil boom to the attempted salvation of a man's damned, rotting soul overcome by greed.

The brilliance of this film lies in how it methodically shows its hand as a deep character study. Plainview almost appears to be somewhat of an admirable figure when we first meet him. But his ambition starts to get the best of him as this inexplicable force that seems to infest only the most competitive individuals drives him forward in his cruelty. He uses his own son to further his business interests, but doesn't hesitate in discarding him when he threatens to become a liability.

When a man (Kevin J. O'Connor) shows up out of nowhere claiming to be his half-brother he doesn't think twice about extracting what he needs from him either. For a while at least, he appears to be the only person Plainview comes close to forming any kind of meaningful connection with. Layers of his personality we couldn't have guessed existed start to manifest itself and by the last third of the film he's pretty much the most vicious monster you could lay your eyes on.

What's so scary about Plainview is the reality of his persona. You could easily throw him in any present-day boardroom in corporate America and he wouldn't lose any of his edge. Justifiably, many comparisons have been made between this film and Citizen Kane thematically and there's a lot to that, especially in the film's emotionally brutal last half-hour. Unlike Charles Foster Kane, however, we realize there's even less of a shot of redemption for this man and by the end of the picture he remains as much of an enigma as when it started. His actions become more heinous as the story wears on, reaching its crescendo with one of the most memorable final scenes and lines in recent film history. The last two words of dialogue written by Anderson couldn't have possibly been more appropriate and chilling.

At close of the film I questioned what the purpose of all of this was. To put the audience through pure emotional hell to deliver a message that greed is bad? I thought the film could join some other great films of the year in being technically brilliant, but emotionally empty. It's not though. The more I think about it the more I realize the entire story is almost driven purely by emotion, just not the kind we're used to seeing in a film. It's negative emotional energy and it's represented in Plainview's relationship with his son as well as with his unsettling encounters with Eli, brilliantly played by Dano. He goes toe-to-toe with one of our greatest actors and holds his own every step of the way.

There was no sense in even having a Best Actor race this year. It was over before it began. No acting work this year or maybe any other so far this decade approaches what Daniel Day-Lewis accomplishes here. It transcends acting, and in some strange way, also works as a dark parody. I recently saw a Saturday Night Live skit spoofing the character that wasn't very funny and would probably seem even less funnier to me now after actually seeing the film. This is because there are already elements of parody in the performance. You can't spoof something that's spoofing itself. Not only does Lewis manage to hit all the dark notes of Plainview perfectly, but he finds a way to slide humor in without it being overtly noticeable.

Some have criticized Day-Lewis' performance as being hammy and over-the-top and it sort of is, but what's so remarkable is how he turns those qualities into attributes that deepen the story's psychology. On a first viewing it may not be entirely noticeable, but on repeated ones it comes more clearly into focus. And surprisingly, that only makes Plainview's downfall scarier and that much more desperate. Even while hating him with a passion, we still deeply care about his fate. It can't be undersold how difficult it should be to sit through a film with a main character this despicable, not to mention one that's featured in every single scene of an almost three hour epic. His performance instead makes it an unforgettable experience.
There Will Be Blood bucks the trend of what can be expected from an Academy Award nominated period drama. That starts with a deafeningly loud, bizarre and unnerving musical score provided by Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood that was deemed ineligible for Oscar consideration because it incorporated pieces of previous recorded material. What makes it fascinating is how it breaks the unwritten rule that the music in a film is not supposed to draw attention to itself. All this seems to do is just that and at times I thought that it would be a better fit for a horror movie. Yet, it works. It works because this is essentially a horror movie and also precisely because it doesn't quite fit. It's uncomfortable and weird, keeping you on edge the entire time. Almost unhinged, like the main character and the film itself. It's touches and eccentricities like these that remind us this is very much a P.T. Anderson picture. Like casting Paul Dano as both brothers and writing them as twins, when the story doesn't even necessitate it at all… or does it? Part of me thinks it does.

This film will be compared to many others for years to come. There are traces of Lawrence of Arabia and Giant and that it doesn't seem out of place discussing this film in the same breath as those says a lot. Especially in regards to the breathtaking cinematography of Robert Elswit, who also shot Michael Clayton, and has had one hell of a year, taking home the statue for this. You could draw comparisons to many other films in terms of look and feel but the Kubrick comparison seems most valid.

Besides the dialogue-free opening 10 minutes reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the unnerving music and the presence of a morally depraved central character there's a certain intangible factor. All of Kubrick's films seemed to exist in this indescribable vacuum of time where they never age or feel dated. I liked Boogie Nights and Magnolia a lot upon their initial releases but time has proven them to be more potent than anyone could have anticipated. The same fate likely awaits There Will Be Blood and it won't surprise me at all when the American Film Institute releases their next list of the 100 greatest films and this is on it, and probably in a pretty high position. This is that good.

I have mixed feelings showering so much praise on this film since it really doesn't need it. I've also grown sick of the Academy's new attitude of rewarding "feel bad" films in an attempt to look edgy. I'd like to tell myself they nominated this for all the right reasons but considering the film that beat this out for Best Picture was the equally morose No Country For Old Men, that's doubtful. However, if they are going that route I only ask they nominate something worthy. This definitely is. It wouldn't be a stretch to envision people still watching and talking about this film 50 years from now.

In true Anderson fashion, this will infuriate casual moviegoers while simultaneously sending diehard film buffs into a tailspin. But we know he won't make anything like it again. After this he'll move on to something completely different, which he'll also excel at. It's that quality that separates Anderson from the pack and will eventually land him a spot on the list with the greatest American filmmakers everyone accuses him of copying. There Will Be Blood is devastating and at times difficult to watch, but you'll find it's impossible to look away.

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