Friday, August 24, 2012

There Will Be Blood (2007)

USA, 158 minutes
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Upton Sinclair
Photography: Robert Elswit
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Editor: Dylan Tichenor
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciaran Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Russell Harvard, David Warshofsky, Colton Woodward

With his third movie in 10 years just around the corner (The Master), it's evident that director/screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson has slowed his output considerably since his first three, which came out in nearly as many years. By contrast, a gulf of five years exists on either side of There Will Be Blood. Maybe it needs that much room to breathe, this huge, baffling, enthralling, exasperating, stunningly beautiful, and ultimately satisfying story of the greed and corruption of the spirit that accompanied the early days of oil exploration and the oil business in the early 20th century. It is way beyond the ordinary plodding costume earnestness of historical pictures, or the naturalism that the source material from muckraker Upton Sinclair would seem to suggest. It doesn't even have that much to do specifically with the oil industry as such.

It is rather a movie about a personality conflict, between self-described oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) on the one hand and self-described "tender of his Father's flock" Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) on the other, with an illustrative side story about a visit by Plainview's self-described long-lost half-brother Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor). Whether or not Anderson intended it, I have come to take the picture almost purely on allegorical levels. That makes the personality conflict at its heart essentially a battle of Rapacious Capitalism and Infantilizing Religiosity (with Henry stepping in as Last Chance for Humanity). They are, of course, arguably the primary motivating forces that competed across the canvas of the 20th century for world domination, or barring that anyway the American soul at least. The surprise for me is that it works at all, let alone as well as it does. And speaking of surprises, please note: spoilers discussed with abandon beyond the jump.

Oil and religion are blended deeply into the fabric of There Will Be Blood. The title itself at first seems an odd way of telegraphing the "R" rating, for "some violence." But the Old Testament cadence and sentiment are clearly deliberate, and the gothic typeface of the titles underlines the point. This is not only about the red, red krovvy. All connotations of "blood" are used and validated as it goes along, most notably the implications of home and family, the substance that is thicker than water. The word's senses of passion, intensity, energizing life force, and even personnel ("new blood") appear as well. For anyone seeing this picture, there will be all these things.

The heartless bastard who tries and mostly succeeds in controlling everything and everyone around him is Daniel Plainview. We know little about him or his family except what we see. He surrounds himself, by design and by happenstance, only with simulacra of blood. It's convenient enough for him, affording him among other things an excuse he can tell himself for not ever really connecting with them. Most of his time he seems to spend alone in isolated locations in the American West, working hard at dangerous work, digging in the earth and taking the oil out of it. There Will Be Blood is amazing at showing the extraordinary dangers in this work. Plainview inherits the son of one of his partners who dies in an accident and treats him as his own son, going by the name of "H.W." Among his many unprincipled practices, Plainview uses H.W. as a prop in business dealings. But for all his shabby treatment of H.W., Plainview clearly loves him.

Therein lies the flaw in our tragic hero. Plainview's greatest weakness is that he cannot tolerate any weakness in any other person, which as all dime-store psychologists know means he tolerates it least of all in himself. He is awful about H.W.'s hearing loss, for example, his shame vibrating like an exposed nerve (Daniel Day-Lewis, if you haven't heard, eats this role alive). At one point, when a fully grown H.W. asks to speak with him in private, without the assistant to interpret his signing, Plainview says, "You can't speak. So why don't you flap your hands about and have what's-his-name tell me." (At the same time, on the allegorical tip, isn't that just so Malthusian?)

In the Henry side story, my favorite part, the tables are turned. This time it is Plainview played for the fool—or played for the fool as he views it. He believes he has connected with family, with blood. He feels it deeply and responds by starting to act human, with warmth and vulnerability. The uncovering of Henry's ruse is a shattering moment, and one example of the very fine filmmaking that marks nearly everything here. That moment when Plainview begins to suspect Henry is just about perfect. The wheels are plainly turning in his head because they are turning in ours too—the screenplay plants the seed almost imperceptibly, and then the performances, editing, and the way the camera is put right on top of both of them, even in the two-shot, there by the side of the ocean, is simply riveting as it plays out. This is also where we learn that Plainview has the capacity to become a monster.

As for the A-story, Plainview and Eli basically carry on like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in ever-escalating full-out war, lacking only products from Acme in wooden crates. Their confrontations are routinely over the top, ratcheting the tensions ever higher in elaborate rituals of humiliation, but they are delicious turns, forcefully dramatic and often very funny (though sometimes that has the effect of undercutting the drama). I take these, as I say, as grand battles of Rapacious Capitalism and Infantilizing Religiosity, and because both are so unlikeable one tends in these moments to side with whoever currently has the upper hand—thus exposing our own fickle temperaments and hypocrisies. It's really neatly done.

Much credit to Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano, who turn in matched titanic performances. I know this raging maniac side of Day-Lewis has been around at least 10 years, since Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, but I must say I still am not entirely used to it. I know him and think of him more as the dandy from A Room With a View and The Age of Innocence. That said, it is vastly more nuanced and modulated here, until the last scene anyway, the final nuke. Paul Dano is meanwhile every bit his match, trading him psychological blow for psychological blow in all their epic showdowns.

For me, the thing about There Will Be Blood is that it's all just done so well. Told over much of its length purely with visuals, and packed full of stunning images, the dramatic tensions are built and discharged sharply. Already it has one of the great last lines in movies: "I'm finished!" Somehow the thing manages to entirely outperform its expectations, even as outsized as they may have been. One may not think much of allegories—they are something I have generally put in a class, as literary device, with oh, say, alliterations—but There Will Be Blood is convincing enough in its story and characters and great themes that I can't help getting swept up in it every time I see it again.

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