27 January 2008

Movielog, There Will Be Blood

There Will Be Blood
Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair
158 minutes

(You can read my review of the Upton Sinclair novel here.)

If you are the type of person who has ever tried to rate movies, or to rank them in any sort of "best of" list, whether by year, decade, whatever, then perhaps you'll understand a certain thing I've noticed. Every so often, there comes a film that is so strange, bold, audacious, brilliant, that it clearly belongs at the top of any such list, and yet to bestow upon it only the top spot on a best-of list seems somehow to diminish it. Examples of such films (to my mind, anyway) are My Dinner with Andre, the astounding documentary Hoop Dreams, and Todd Solondz's darkly funny and disturbing Happiness. Are these films better than Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pulp Fiction, and Pleasantville, each my personal pick for the "best of" that particular year? Well, yes and no, for while the former list is made up of undeniably brilliant films, they are strange, generally made outside of a genre or studio system, and are only diminished when compared to the other fare being made at that time. In a sense, they are timeless masterpieces, moving in directions unknown to other films, and with the kind of strange quirkiness that oftentimes puts off audiences.

I preface this review this way because I believe Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is just that kind of film. Is it necessarily better than something like No Country for Old Men? Depends on your criteria, of course, but while No Country exists within a genre and is understandable in those terms (even while it overflows the constraints of that genre and becomes the kind of philosophical piece rightly called genius), There Will Be Blood stands alone, stretching what it is possible to do with celluloid and light, inventing a new language of cinema, and placing its writer/director as quite possibly the single greatest living filmmaker. And yes, I mean exactly what I said there.

This film comes "based on" a novel by Upton Sinclair, but it's fairer to say that it was merely "inspired by" Sinclair's work. Sinclair's work is about a boy with a rich father who is tempted into socialism, but Anderson's film drops the entire socialism angle, keeps the boy as a child (until the very end), and focuses instead on the father. And while Sinclair's J. Albert Ross Sr. is a basically decent man who allows his greed to influence his humanity, Anderson's Daniel Plainview is all greed, all force, all malevolence -- the soliloquy he delivers in the trailer (which is also showcased about halfway through the movie) is very much the way he thinks. He hates people, wants no one but himself to succeed. J. Albert Ross was consumed by money, but Daniel Plainview is consumed by a hateful competition that descends into madness.

Plainview is played amazingly by Daniel Day-Lewis, and one of the triumphs of the performance is how now that I've seen Day-Lewis in this role, I can't imagine it being played by anyone else. Day-Lewis hasn't worked a lot recently, having appeared in only eight movies since 1990, but his reputation as one of the finest of all actors is well-deserved. Here he plays a character always on a knife-edge of greed and corruption, of hate and impudence, of need and avarice, but always compelling, and (strangely) always sympathetic, even towards the end when his behavior becomes monstrous. Large sections of this film are played without dialogue, or with simple dialogue that does not directly hint of his character's emotional state. Watch how Day-Lewis embues a simple "No" with shades of meaning that illuminate the horrors of his soul during a night scene involving a fire. Watch how his face contorts during a scene in a church, as he goes through emotional states unknown to those around him. Watch how he manipulates the townsfolk around him, convincing them that he has their best interests at heart.

A teaser poster for the film has the tagline, "When Ambition Meets Faith," and in this case the "faith" is represented by Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), who plays a faith-healing preacher of a tiny church who also happens to be the son of the man from whom Plainview buys the land he builds his oil wells upon. It is a mark of Dano's skills as a performer that even though he has much less screen time than Day-Lews (who is in very nearly every shot of the film), he exists as a reliable counterweight, and his performance does not suffer in comparison with the much more experienced Day-Lewis. And while Anderson doesn't imbue Eli with quite the same level of hucksterism that Sinclair did in his novel, Eli is himself not quite what he seems -- he is savvy, self-promoting, and uses his appearance of naivete to manipulate those around him. In a real sense, he and Plainview are dopplegangers, not opposites, and while the poster simplifies the conflict, the film is much more nuanced in terms of its view of what these two characters are really trying to do, and what they mean both to one another and to the society around them.

I can't let this entry end without discussing the score. Anderson has dropped longtime collaborator Jon Brion for Johnny Greenwood, the guitarist for Radiohead, and his work here is strange, dissonant, thematically off-putting for a period piece, and yet somehow perfect for the film. The music in Punch-Drunk Love was like a wave of sound encompassing the theater, oppressive and destructive in the way it represented the lead character's emotional trauma, and here Greenwood continues in the vein that Brion started, giving us a score that seems to encompass the complex personality of Plainview, and which prefigures and foreshadows the unimaginable future that Plainview has ahead of him. AMPAS rules prevented this score from being considered for an Oscar, and that's shameful -- this is among the best scores ever composed, and while I love Brion's work in Anderson's other films, I'd love to hear what Greenwood could do when teamed with PTA's sensibilities again.

I haven't even touched on many of the amazing things in this film. Partly because it would give away spoilers, but partly because this film is astonishing and genius from beginning to end, with nearly every shot, every moment, every camera move, providing the audience with yet another amazing sight, yet another revealation, yet another bit of character development. And yet this is not the brash young filmmaker whose work seemed insular and whose camerawork seemed flashy -- gone are the swish-pans that were so effective in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, gone are the huge casts of characters, the stylized dialogue, the smash-cuts. Anderson's work here is just as bold, but he has matured as an artist, and uses his techniques more sparingly, with a greater eye for composition, and without as great a need to show off what he can do with a camera.

This film starts as a study of prospecting around the turn of the 20th century, moves on to a tale of greed, and becomes a character study (two character studies!), then eventually ends on notes of jet-black comedy masked as in-depth character study (or is it the other way around?). Many viewers will be put off by this film, by its running-time, by its freedom from convention and ordinary narrative, by its long takes, by the madness of its central character. And yet the film will endure, will, I am sure, build up a reputation as one of the greatest of all films, will serve as a study of how good films can be.

Anderson is the cinematic equivalent of Thomas Pynchon, whose books are widely regarded as the height of genius but whose difficulty and density scare away readers, and whose works need multiple read-throughs to properly absorb. But in both cases the works are worth the trouble to study, and ultimately will likely last as long as people read and/or watch movies. There Will Be Blood is strange, long, diffcult to understand, with obsessive characters and obscure meanings. But it is worth the effort, worth the viewing, and if you see it theatrically it is worth the experience, which envelopes the screen like few other films I've ever seen. It's amazing, astonishing, brilliant, and one of the greatest films ever made.

1 comment:

Monte Davis said...

the soliloquy he delivers in the trailer

That's the dimly lit "confession" to Henry that begins "I have a competition in me," yes?

Towards the end of it he says he needs help in dealing with "these [pause] people." And smiles and chuckles... and freezes you in your seat, because in that moment you realize that he believes everyone else is as robotic as he is, and is counterfeiting humanity as he does.
He wants help not to change himself or reach out in any way, but only as an instrumental tactic.