Sunday, February 24, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Goin' back to Huston

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Say to Aaron, 'Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their reservoirs of water, that they may become blood; and there will be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.'"
Exodus 7: 19

Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" is a free-hand adaptation of the beginning of Upton Sinclair's "Oil!" that tells the rise of self-declared oil-man Daniel Plainview, of his rise and corruption, of the battles he undertakes to achieve his goals, and the costs of his life of solitary determinism on his sanity and his soul.

As a story of how one man could have made a mint extracting oil from the ground in the late days of the 19th Century, it is a great success. Plainview makes of himself a Man of Destiny to acquire land and mineral rights to further his business interests, uses the boy he has taken under his wing to promote himself as a family man to the town-folk he bilks, and courts the influential among them that their goals are his goals. It's all a lie, of course. He wants their oil. And he will do anything to get it. Anything.

Daniel Day-Lewis' scrupulous absconding of the voice, cadence and manner of John Huston is not unlike Plainview's ruthless extraction of oil from the ground. Huston's dramatic power always lay in his measured tones that bespoke intelligence and Great Thought couched in a velvety roughness that combined Male Gruffness with Feminine Sensitivity. It's an orator's voice. An authority's voice. A voice of steel wrapped in leather. Day-Lewis's use of Huston's voice, combined with an unblinking wolf's glare lets you see the inner strength of the man, while at the same time not revealing too much of what's going on inside, which is a hard trick to pull off over a two hour movie running time--especially when Day-Lewis is on-screen almost the entire time.

At the same time, Anderson sets up a story about three pillars of American Strength: Industry, Faith and Family, and the perpetual war that those three engage in for the heart and soul of America.* In "There Will Be Blood," that the three are all based on falsehood and impression, makes the argument that that strength is a house of cards, an illusion as much as a businessman's power, the authority of God, or the ties that bind. They are all claims that are only good if they are freely given, and the protagonists of "There Will be Blood," are in a intellectual battle to take the Rights, the Faith, and the Authority--the Power. Quite the interesting film to make in an election year.

Playing the Faith base is Paul Dano, who was so great as the self-disciplining son in "Little Miss Sunshine." He first appears as twin brother Paul Sunday, who bargains with Plainview for knowledge of the oil-rich property his family owns. He turns up later as Eli Sunday, evangelist and leader of the Church of the Third Resurrection, sanctimony permanently plastered on his face, and the air of entitlement despite his humble surroundings. Both he and Plainview work to get their way, and when they don't, they become unhinged. They gravitate to each other, attracted to each other's Power, coveting it, and conspiring to take it for their own.

Technically, the film is a marvel. There are gorgeous scenes of well-fires, and many, many night shots of Plainview's face, where he is only one shade paler than the dark (the amazing cinematography is by Robert Elswit, who also shot "Michael Clayton"), the film is never less than beautiful to watch. Production design is by Jack Fisk, who excells at this sort of period piece. Johnny Greenwood's score is thuddingly heavy-handed, though, it's his first score so he hasn't learned that he's not the front-man, yet. Ultimately, though, the cumulative effect is underdone by Anderson's own screenplay. It's source novel (Upton Sinclair's "Oil!") continues the story to the corruption of the country's government by the Teapot Dome Scandal, but Anderson is content to stop at Plainview's own corruption. A good thing, too, as expanding the story to its biblical ends would have probably added another couple hours of screen-time. The bad thing is his ending feels truncated, hap-hazard and a little desperate.** It certainly doesn't feel like the ending for the measured film that has come before. Even though the larger scandal doesn't occur, it's weight is what is needed to complete this particular film, and so it feels lacking, like a phantom pain for a severed limb.

There has been a rush to Hosannah this film as a Masterpiece.*** If the film wasn't spending so much time obfuscating its point, it might be. As it is, its a glorified character study, richly appointed and lovingly produced, but with an obvious character arc and an air of self-importance that it never achieves. Or deserves.

"There Will Be Blood" is a Matinee
* Lest anyone think that Anderson is staking a new claim here, the same themes run throughout and typify the American gangster movie.

** (SPOILER) The more one thinks about the way the story turns--of Plainview going from the stationary silver mining, into the less physically restrictive oil-trade and expanding his reach, the ending seems to be focussing on the wrong story arc. Some critics are saying that Plainview is killing God at the end. Well, technically he's not, not even in his own mind, if he's been denying God's existence not five minutes before. No, Plainview bludgeons Sunday because once he's made him deny his faith, Sunday's threat, and thus Sunday himself, is dead already. But there are some critics who want to treat this movie the way some scholars have treated "Moby Dick" ("The bench is a metaphor for Calvinism"), when, like Freud, you have to concede that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." What's all that talk about milk-shakes a metaphor..uh...for?

*** Manohla Dargis wrote, in her review for the New York Times, "the film is above all a consummate work of art, one that transcends the historically fraught context of its making, and its pleasures are unapologetically aesthetic." Uh-huh...other than the "consummate work of art" part, one could say that about ANY film. I think she's saying that she likes it, that she can't explain why, and that it was tough to make.

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