Thursday, December 10, 2009

There Will Be Blood (2007) A Film by Paul Thomas Anderson

It is difficult to pinpoint the variety of motivations that led me to kick this blog off last year. There have been a great number of films that I've seen in the past in which something occurred - a camera movement, a gesture, an utterly bizarre moment, a mood, a performance, a director, a style - that gradually created a desire inside me to write. Slacker, Damnation, Garden State, Paths of Glory, The Silence. These were all films that made me feel something that I knew needed to be expressed, but yet I remained quiet. Then Paul Thomas Anderson's magisterial There Will be Blood came to theaters. I saw it twice. That was the tipping point. I knew I needed to start writing. It was an especially crucial moment for me considering the film was the only thing I'd seen on the big screen up to that point that I could comfortably call "art". Sad, I know, but I knew it was a powerful sensation that called for action.

Ironically, I never ended up writing about There Will Be Blood for a number of reasons, most notably the fact that I sprung voraciously towards new films and wanted only to write about those. Anderson's work was simply an energizer, a celluloid strip that caused me to throw myself into the blogosphere rather than a film I was truly committed to engaging with in writing. I have now seen it for a third time, and it remains as eye-opening an experience as it was both times in the theater. The epic, Kubrickian scope of it translates decently well onto the television screen (after all, maybe I've trained myself to consume films that beg for theatrical treatment on a dinky home screen, having seen all of Kubrick's films in the comfort of my own basement). The scintillating uniqueness of Jonny Greenwood's score manages to resonate even without the luxury of surround sound. Robert Elswit's Oscar-winning cinematography loses some of its majestic impact on a digital television, but his compositions remain never less than striking. And most interestingly, Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning lead performance only becomes simultaneously more fascinating and more inscrutable through repeat viewings, his layers of mystery only deepening the more he ruthlessly snivels at his opponents.

It is necessary to point out that Day-Lewis, playing Daniel Plainview, the turn-of-the-century oil man who dominates the film physically, emotionally, and and spiritually, considers everyone an opponent. That makes for a lot of snarling. Plainview tells us, in the only scene of the film in which he comes close to speaking his mind, that he is a misanthrope, that he finds nothing to like in most people. He says this to a man named Henry (Kevin J. O'Conner) that falsely passes himself off as his brother to line himself up with success and money, and yet even as Plainview falls for his description, one can sense the distrust and dislike he feels towards him. This is because Plainview is a materialist in the strictest sense of the word, so much so that he devalues all human relationships in favor of personal accomplishment. Family does not matter, other than as a superficial image that will boost Plainview's own ethos. This may be the reason why in the stunningly wordless opening twenty minutes - reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey right down to shot compositions and musical cues - Plainview takes a fellow oil-man's baby son as his own when he injures himself at work. H.W. (Dillon Freasier), as he calls him, becomes his omnipresent right-hand-man, a vehicle that will allow others to apply qualities to Daniel such as family-oriented and loving even though they are noticeably lacking. That is, he is his sidekick until he goes deaf due to a massive explosion at the oil derrick one day, a defect that tarnishes Daniel's sense of self, bearing in mind he cannibalizes H.W. into a fragment of his own persona.

If H.W. - a character who is fittingly kept opaque throughout the film - becomes a fraction of Plainview, then Paul Sunday, the eccentric prophet in the small town of New Boston who turns Plainview's eye towards his land, becomes his mirror image. And yet at first glance, Sunday (a fitting name for a person who leads Sunday mass) appears to be everything Plainview is not: family-oriented, faithful in God, accommodating, gentle. Gradually, the film reveals him as a similarly greedy figure, devoted to turning religion into capitalism in the same way Plainview attempts to maintain his dominance of the oil business. Most aggravating is Paul's complete and utter phoniness when it comes to sermonizing; in order to rid his patrons of demons, he puts on exhibitionist spectacles involving screaming, writhing, and drooling. Paul Dano plays the determined false prophet as if on the same balance beam as Day-Lewis, risking ludicrousness one minute and putting on somber sincerity the next. Although both have the feel of eccentric and iconic figures, they manage to steer their performances towards believability.

Some of the central themes that emerge out of There Will Be Blood, like greed, ambition, and fate, align the film with a greater tradition of mythic American films that tackle such subjects with epic scope and a brooding tone, such as John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Welles' Citizen Kane (a work that appears to be more and more of an influence to Anderson as the film progresses). However, subjects like the oil industry, capitalism, and evangelism seem more timely than they do timeless. Oil is now an atrocious global market heavily dependent on foreign affairs. Capitalism tends to hurt more than it helps. And religion has turned into a marketable, ever-shifting commodity, where conversion to certain beliefs is forced on the innocent passersby more than ever. Anderson's pejorative treatment of all three subjects begs for the film to be interpreted as an allegory on current affairs. Daniel Plainview, who is an overwhelming, suffocating presence onscreen, and in many ways a tangible weight, seems to have the force of an entire landscape. Could that landscape be the United States spiraling into abysmal depths as it equates wealth and achievement with importance?

It is not that Anderson has never grappled with such multi-layered subject matter before. In fact, his films all critique American ways of life to some extent, but it is the clarity and cohesion with which he pursues his key questions that distinguishes There Will Be Blood as his finest work. Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love tend to put forth a broad smattering of ideas but lack overall focus, whereas There Will Be Blood maturely stays true to a distinct flow, even as its backstory is left cloaked and its pace may be described as deliberate. Anderson seems to have a firm grasp of the implications of his stirring images, such as the scene when Plainview literally rubs Paul's face in a pool of oil, or its supposed power shift later on when Paul conducts the salvation of Plainview, a blackly comic look at the facade of religious conversion. He also deftly incorporates Greenwood's tense string-based score, using it not just to supplement the drama but to embody the spirit of the film and its characters in a way that brings to mind, once again, Kubrick, who would frequently realize the full potential of dissonance between soundtrack and image.

All of this comes to us through one of the most cleverly self-referential titles I've ever heard. It's rare that I ever give a title too much credit, and I'm certainly not the kind of person that will watch a movie with the title in mind and go back and dissect it afterward. However, There Will Be Blood's is a standout; its blunt four words are an acknowledgment of the different permutations of blood that are spread across the film: the blood of the land (oil), the blood of the human body, and the blood of Christ. It is also a mouth-watering warning of the unsavory act that closes the film, which is really its only graphic outbreak, leading some to ask the question, "where is the blood?" I love the tension that Anderson creates by naming the film what he does, a claustrophobic tension that is only fully solved in the final minutes when Plainview lets out the multivalent last line, "I'm finished", in a symmetrical composition set to anachronistic string music. The sequence makes me want to jump for joy. It is great, fulfilling cinema.


Ed Howard said...

Great piece, Carson. I can certainly understand why this film would be exciting enough to make you want to write about film. Anderson's other films all point towards a potentially great filmmaker; this one announces the arrival of that great filmmaker. There's a great deal to admire in this film, but other than the obvious moments — the gorgeous, nearly dialogue-free opening and the whole funny/horrifying final sequence, culminating with "I'm finished" — I especially love that quieter scene you point out, when Plainview essentially makes a confession to his fake brother. Day-Lewis' performance is so big, so grand, that this moment of relative restraint and emotional nakedness is especially moving. One feels Plainview's loneliness, and simultaneously his contempt for the whole idea of human company; he aches for family even while pushing everyone away at every opportunity.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks, Ed. Yes, that sequence definitely was one of the standouts, from the delicate fire lighting to the way Plainview seems to choose every word with painstaking deliberation, afraid to give his alleged brother the wrong idea of him. There's an electrifying scene in the recent film The Road with Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall which appears to be influenced by this.