Sunday, November 18, 2007

There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson's saga of the early California oil industry, There Will Be Blood, is based very loosely on Upton Sinclair's novel, Oil!. According to the writer/director Anderson, he started out adapting that novel, intrigued by its visceral descriptions of the hardships faced by oilmen in this era, but strayed from the source material more and more, turning away from "living history" and focusing more on the psychology of protagonist Daniel Plainview. Though he abandoned much of the action and purpose of Sinclair's muckraking book, Anderson has nevertheless made a film that feels like a dense work of literary fiction.

The film has been described frequently as "strange," or "bizarre" or "difficult," and I think this is a reaction to the depth and intensity of Anderson's examination of Plainview, which is a kind of focused character study increasingly uncommon in the cinema. (It recalls the more esoteric Hollywood films of the '70s in some ways, and Blood is dedicated to Robert Altman, whose work was clearly influential to Anderson. But its hard to find true comparisons with this movie even among the classic Westerns and period films of that era).

Plainview, portrayed by the legendary Daniel Day-Lewis, is quite simply one of the most fascinating cinematic creations of this decade. How far from the traditional modern film performance is Day-Lewis here? Honestly, it's like night and day. This guy can suggest a vast spectrum of emotion without uttering a single word. There's a scene in which he explodes in rage at a business rival in a crowded restaurant, but the sour glare he initially shoots at the man is almost more alarming than the final, violent confrontation. Even modern actors whose work I really enjoy, like Clive Owen or Tony Leung or Naomi Watts or Phillip Seymour Hoffman, none of them have this kind of presence on-screen. The comparison to Day-Lewis' work in Gangs of New York is an obvious one, but I think he's even better here - less cartoonish, more repressed, at least twice as angry but unable to find a way to express that or any other emotion. I thought for sure that Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men would be my favorite turn by any actor this year, but it's only one week later and I've had to rethink that stance...

We follow Plainview's career and personal life from 1898, when he labored in isolation as a silver miner, until the late 1920's, when he's an angry old curmudgeon living off his ill-gotten gains. We find him, pickax in hand, chipping away at a wall of rock desperately hoping to find something valuable. His chosen work is painful and dangerous, and he spends the vast majority of his time completely alone. After several years, he has saved up enough to start his own oil company, and develops an unerringly reliable sense for where to find oil and how to exploit whatever locals are sitting on top of it at the time.

He essentially becomes a traveling salesman, journeying across California convincing people that he will share the wealth of their property once they've signed everything over to him. Therefore, Plainview must appear to be a good, honest, salt-of-the-earth type individual, even though it's clear to the viewer from fairly early on that he doesn't care about anyone or anything save wealth and status. He adopts the orphaned son of one of his employees who dies on the job, takes in a man claiming to be his long-lost brother, and even attends the local church even though the notion of humbling himself before God seems to turn his stomach.

He needs the citizens of Little Boston, who sit atop one of the largest oil finds in the West, to see him as one of their own, so he must work God rhetorically into all his grandiose speeches and even make nice with the preening reverend of the local church, Eli Sunday (a terrifically disturbed performance from Paul Dano). Going through the motions of being a good man, however, cannot actually make someone a good man, and this principle alone appears to disprove the very basis of Christian thought. (Or does it? During one of Sunday's sermons, he claims that, even though he may wish everyone on Earth can be saved, the truth is that they cannot. Is this acceptance of the existence of evil among humanity a fundamental Christian principle, or the antithesis of Jesus' inclusion-focused? And isn't this an interesting conversation for an American MOVIE to spark?)

Much of Daniel's story concerns his need to coddle religious believes with his personal disgust with religion. A scene in which Sunday "saves" Plainview's soul in front of the entire town, shot entirely in close-up on Day-Lewis' pained grimace, tells you all you need to know about these men and their relationship. This is not about God and salvation; it's a power struggle, one man using his position in the community to bend a stronger man to his will. Brilliant, intricately-detailed work here from Anderson, Day-Lewis, Dano and cinematographer Robert Elswit.

The entire film, really, is a tribute to Elswit's keen eye and gracefulness with the camera. During the Q&A session after the film, moderator Judd Apatow (no, I don't know why he was there either...), in between painfully lame wisecracks, noted that the film was shot very simply and in a straight-forward manner. Anderson agreed, saying that he was limited by shooting most of the film out of doors, but I think he was just trying to be nice because, to my mind, this could not be more wrong. Blood is, in fact, far more understated than Anderson's other films (particularly the stylish and spazzy Boogie Nights), but it's not exactly Ozu either. There are numerous amazing long-takes, swooping tracking shots and breathtakingly scenic vistas. (One incredible early shot moves from Day-Lewis' battered form pulling himself along the rocky ground up to the mountains in the far horizon, showing you just how far he has to go to find civilization. Hardly a simple, straight-forward bit of imagery). The use of earth tones, viscous blacks and various shades of brown, also struck me as rather masterful, draping the entire film in filth and grime, just as the main characters spend their time rooting through soil and dirt in their quest for financial gain.

The entire art department has done phenomenal work here, bringing this era to stunning life on screen. Though, as I've said, the film focuses on Plainview's damaged psyche and deteriorating relationships, the visuals provide a tremendous insight into the conditions of early oil fields, the nature of the oil business at the time and the rough and thoroughly alien landscape of California only a century ago. (The film was shot in West Texas because nowhere in California actually looks like this any more.)

There Will Be Blood is an amazing movie; a hugely-entertaining, often-hilarious, darkly troubling, thought-provoking, informative, frightening, expertly-made epic. It opens right around Christmas and I will be seeing it again at that time. I love this time of year; I actually get to go see good movies in the theater, an excruciatingly rare event from January to October.


drummer510 said...

Sounds fantastic. Now there are two movies I'm seein during x-mas break. Both seem pretty jacked up.

Day-Lewis is a great actor, and this is a perfect role for him. From what you said, he is an evil character in this film, and it's these evil characters who bring the unwanted truth to light, i.e. exploitation, selfishness, greed, dishonesty, and anger.

It is protagonists like this who add depth and character to a story. It will be interesting to see how/if Day-Lewis's character has some sort of redemption or revelation. Maybe he doesn't change and just reinforces the idea that there are just some people in the world who cannot be saved.

Great review.

Steve said...

Nice work, Lons. I didn't get a chance to speak with you after the screening and I'm not the least bit surprised you had the same reation as I did. I think everyone is quite impressed. Anderson has really stepped up his game and Day-Lewis is clearly the finest actor in the world right now.

You should be writing professionally.

jordan said...

way to make me insanely jealous. there are absolutely no early screenings here in chicago... december 26th cannot come soon enough.

henry frisch said...


I am mystified by the proclamations of greatness for "There Will Be Blood." No film has disappointed me as much in ages. When a film runs long, it is expected to provide quality. "Blood" is merely tedious. I almost laughed out loud at the "I drank your milkshake" part. The overacting by DD-L is ludicrous and unappealing. I half suspect that the attacks on oilmen (I have no problem with Luddite views if they are justified) and religion (if merited, fine) are the source of much of the raving on behalf of the film. But the silliness of "Blood" cannot be overlooked by intelligent viewers. If it is post 1929, why does Eli still seem to be 14? Why does the Sunday family not discuss Paul's absence? Why would a shrewd man like Plainview wait so long to test Henry? What happens to his sidekick (the former Julius Caesar of "Rome") whose skills alas are seemingly shunted to the cutting room? Why does HW speak like a person always deaf rather than like a person born hearing? Perhaps an actor who could sign was needed and the adult HW is portrayed by an actor actually deaf? "No Country For Old Men" is so superior in its rendition of a nihilistic view of America that the two films ought not even be mentioned in the same breath.