Wednesday, January 9, 2008

There Will Be Blood (****)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson


No filmmaker in the last ten years has been more enigmatic than Paul Thomas Anderson. His films range from the extremely quirky romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love, the meditation on the decadence of the 70's porn industry, Boogie Nights, and the unrelenting group melodrama Magnolia. It is hard to believe, with those wide range of credits, that he can then continue to make his most ambitious film to date, stylistically and thematically.

The film begins with Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) chugging eagerly away with a pick at the bottom of an oil well. He is alone, and when he slips down his ladder, he severely breaks his leg. What is foremost on his mind, though, is the situation in his well. Plainview labors to climb up his well with his leg, holding a giant grin on his face: he knows that he's struck gold. The rest of the film is essentially numerous versions of this opening sequence, as Plainview grows with more and more hunger to gain riches from the oil he discovers.

There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth film, is primarily the story of Plainview after his first discovery. When we finally hear him speak, he is now a self-made oil man who travels from town to town with his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) trying to find and buy oil-drilling prospects. When he is lead to the Sunday Ranch by a mysterious Paul Sunday, he heads over to see the land himself. He gets there and greets the owner Abel, whose son Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is a mystical preacher in a slowly growing church.

Plainview sees that the ranch has oil practically bursting out of the ground, and quickly begins attempts to lease the land so he can begin to drill. Everything is agreed upon: he will drill in the ground, and in exchange he will pay five thousand dollars to the Sunday family for using their land. There is one issue, though: Eli does not totally trust Plainview's motives or the morality of his workers, and Plainview does not totally buy into Eli's piety, as Eli asks all of the money be used to promote his church. The battle of wits between these two men is what makes the overall conflict in the story, but we are never sure which side represents good or evil.

The film is loosely based on Upton Sinclair's Oil, a muckraking novel written decades after Sinclair's iconic 1920's book The Jungle. This is the first time that Anderson has ever adapted a screenplay from a book, and it stands to say that Anderson supposedly strays from the source material quite a bit. The entire story rests on the unrelenting personality of Daniel Plainview. Plainview is a man of strict morals, in which he feels he is the only that can break his code. His relationships with people are strained and cold. Even in his most close relationship with his son H.W., he uses the young man as more of a tool or a prop than a son.

In a very interesting subplot, Plainview meets a man named Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor) who claims to be his half-brother. Despite flimsy evidence, Plainview believes him, and Henry becomes the only person in the film that he truly confides in. He tells Henry about his hatred for the human race and his disdain in almost all his relationships with people. It is the most telling scene in the movie, at least of Plainview, and the only time Plainview takes the time to explain his unflinching personality.

Plainview's cold, distant personality is captured in an absolutely ferocious performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis, one of the most supreme and dedicated actors of his generation, does another tremendous job of transformation here. His Daniel Plainview is one so collective yet conniving that he becomes the unquestioned dominating force throughout the picture. He sports a John Huston-like drawl throughout the film which makes his voice crackle and pop. There are less than a handful of scenes that don't have Plainview as the focus, and needless to say, those scenes don't last very long.

The only other actor who challenges Day-Lewis for supremacy in this film is Dano. Eli Sunday is a puzzling character--he is mild-mannered but bursts into loud, outlandish sermons when placed in his church. Plainview never believes in Eli's flailing and emotional outbursts, and Sunday becomes a representation of everything he wants to destroy. Sunday says believes in the power of God, but it is curious how often he asks for money, and how often his sermons turn into spectacles. Dano's performance as the naive yet intelligent Eli is one that is incredibly nuanced and complex, yet he is never able to out stage the presence of Plainview.

Many comparisons have been made by movie experts comparing the character of Daniel Plainview to the iconic character of Charles Foster Kane. I find this hard to fathom as Plainview never spends time in the film to lament over anything like Kane does with "rosebud", but the stories of the two are similar. Both men work as hard as they can do get riches they will never truly appreciate, but Kane does it to buy the love of the people around him, which he tragically finds is not something that can be bought. Plainview's fate seems much more fair, though, because he collects money to buy his own isolation from the rest of the world, and he earns it. The two films are much more dissimilar than most seem to realize but both are interesting stories of the power of greed and the disintegration of the soul.

The film, I must say, is no Citizen Kane. There Will Be Blood struggles at moments with it's story: like I said, there is never a satisfactory reason given for Plainview's hatred, women seem to have no purpose in the world of this film and many have been debating the appropriateness of the ending. Though I think it's silly to expect a conventional ending from the same guy who made it rain frogs at the conclusion of Magnolia, I believe the film's ending devolves into unneeded eccentricity. Yet, I get the feeling that this film couldn't have ended any other way, and that there was never any kind of room for anything appropriate to happen in the end.

That said, no other film released this year has more of a feeling of profundity. The film tackles so many themes at the same time, it's an accomplishment that this film was able to be made without being a complete mess. It addresses greed, the downside of capitalism, the inevitability of tragedy, and the role manipulation and materialism plays in today's churches and religions. Nobody comes away unscathed in this film, and that seems to be the point. The film is so brooding and so relentless in its mischievous actions you walk away pondering deep, dark thoughts.

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