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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Film: "There Will Be Blood" Boils -- Paul Thomas Anderson Strikes a Gusher

I'm not the only critic to pick up on Daniel Day-Lewis' oddball accent du jour in Paul Thomas Anderson's powerhouse American epic There Will Be Blood. The first 15 minutes (or so) come accompanied by nothing other than Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's unsettling dissonant score. Thus, when Day-Lewis as ravenous, rapacious oil baron Daniel Plainview finally utters his first line "I am an oilman..." my ears were already primed for his sonorous tones. But the intonation and accent...where had I heard it before? As Entertainment Weekly's reviewer noted it's a spot-on John Huston. I'll be even more precise and say that it's John Huston as ravenous, rapacious Noah Cross in Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece Chinatown, in my opinion one of the greatest American films ever made. The actor's choice is superb -- Cross and Plainview are cut from the same cloth, brothers in chronology and drive.

The overall story of There Will be Blood echoes yet another Great American Film, perhaps the greatest, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. It's a measure of how far Anderson has come as a filmmaker that Blood may well stand in the company of those two films with the requisite critical distance of time, rather than straining to touch the hem of their garments as his earlier films have done.

Boogie Nights for instance, his best film until now, felt like a Tarantino take on the porn industry -- no bad thing in and of itself -- the film is quite enjoyable to watch and has aged a great deal better than many others by Tarantino's acolytes. Still from the winking pop-culture knowingness, the stunt casting of Burt Reynolds (who is to Boogie as Travolta was to Pulp Fiction) and the inevitable guns the debt felt almost too heavy.

Anderson's follow-up Magnolia went even further, functioning as an extended homage not just to Robert Altman in general, but to his late period triumph Short Cuts specifically. The slavish devotion to even the ending of Altman's film, while pushing the elder director's vaunted realism into the realm of the overheated and implausible did Magnolia no favors, though it too is watchable in parts -- saved by a handful of fine performances.

So it comes as a pleasant surprise to be able to mention two of the great filmmakers (three if you count Huston) in reference to an Anderson film and still come away feeling that he has made his masterwork -- one that is truly his own. I'll even throw in yet another by pointing out that the glorious cinematography by longtime Anderson director of photography Robert Elswit brings to mind Director Terence Malick's great 70s visions.

What makes the film Anderson's own is that he has taken Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! and fashioned from it a multi-pronged allegory about greed, about nation building, about brotherhood, about belief both religious and secular.

A large measure of this success is shaped by the extraordinary performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, who eats the screen and his actors (never chewing mind you, simply devouring) just as surely as his character Plainview consumes all the land and oil and people around him. This is not to slight the fine performances of Paul Dano as glum potato-faced Reverend Sunday, who himself sits upon a gusher of rage as surely as his family sits on a gusher of oil, or the wonderful child actor Dillon Freasier as H.W. Plainview -- his father's "partner" and protege turned wounded cast-off. Day-Lewis is simply the perfectly cast embodiment of his character. He is a truly detestable human being, far more so than Charles Foster Kane, but he is equally mesmerizing and the audience can't take their eyes of him.

Whether the film is allegorical or simply a story of galloping megalomania or both -- the richness of the telling, the biblical undertones and the frequent pairings of men come laden with undertones of deep meaning. Plainview has a brother who might or might not supplant his son's role, Reverend Sunday also has a brother, a twin who seems to embody the ability to do and be the things that the Reverend can't or won't allow for himself. Finally in the end Reverend Sunday insists that he and Plainview are as much brothers as anyone else. Is it any wonder that Sunday's father is named Abel? Is H.W. Plainview the only one truly saved -- delivered as he is into the arms of his wife -- a woman who as a child is saved herself by his intercession?

It's also tempting to read all sorts of current event interpretations and judgements into the film. If one wants to they are freely invited by the end of the film to follow the path of oil mania, rampant greed, narcissistic fatalism and what have you all the way to the Iraq imbroglio. To Anderson's credit -- it's not necessary nor overtly alluded to. This is however a classic making-of-a-nation tale and while this has been told via the airplane industry by Scorsese in The Aviator and the media world by Welles in Kane, there is a special resonance to Anderson's choice of oil. Oil in a sense is blood -- pumping through the veins of modern industrial and military might -- and paid for in kind with human hemoglobin from the time of it's discovery as a motive fuel.

About the ending -- I'm not going to spoil anything. Some critics seemed to rebel from it while other have accepted or even embraced it. I found it perfectly in keeping with what had transpired up to that point and more important, like the rest of the film it is imbued with a unique combination of grandeur and grit.

Here's the trailer:

There Will be Blood gets 5 out of 5 gushers, a future classic: