Thursday, January 24, 2008
In Theaters: There Will Be Blood
The film’s title is an interesting one- it’s not inaccurate, but it perhaps leads you to expect a more gruesome and violent picture than you actually get. There is violence, and death, and betrayal and so on, but not to excess (in fact this is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s more restrained films.) The film’s real draw is its utter killer of a lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, portraying a magnificent monster of a character whose oversized ego is wedded to a ferocious intelligence. It’s both a focused character study and a sprawling epic, dominated by a sardonic tone that keeps it from weighing too heavily on our heads. It’s rough, gritty, and disturbing, but also perversely funny.
Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, whom we first meet as a grizzled oil prospector who makes his first strike only after breaking his leg falling down the shaft. He drags himself back to the claims office, gets a few men to help him, and when one of them is killed in an accident he adopts the man’s orphaned son. Several years later, he’s a genuine oil baron, using his son’s face to add legitimacy to his operations, when a young man tells him there’s oil to be had in a patch of particularly desolate farm country. Daniel moves in, buys up the property and sets up a drilling operation, but finds himself increasingly at odds with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), the twin brother of his informant and self-appointed prophet and faith healer of the Church of the Third Revelation. Eli, who helped negotiate the initial deal, is owed some five thousand dollars for his church, and though he appreciates the support Plainview gives to this community, he’s wary of a kind of evil creeping in. The eventual striking of oil does not simplify anything, and if anything is merely a formality.
The film is based on “Oil!”, a book written by Upton Sinclair in 1927, though I’m given to understand it was radically altered. What we get here is basically Daniel’s story from beginning to what may as well be the end, a kind of ultra-twisted CITIZEN KANE in which Kane seeks not approval or love but victory. Daniel Plainview does not want to retire and live a happy peaceful life; he could have done so long before the main storyline begins. He’s an oil man, and making a lot of money from oil is his thing, and he continues to do this to the exclusion of all other activities, never even taking much of an interest in the opposite sex (or the same sex for that matter.) He is an energetic and passionate man, but all that energy and passion is poured into the same pursuit. There are moments of weakness; he is at times concerned for the welfare of his son, and for that of a brother who appears at his doorstep, but these are subsumed in time.
This actually sounds kind of cold and boring when I write it down, but Anderson, never a dispassionate filmmaker, goes out of his way to make the proceedings lively and messy. Part of it is that oil drilling in itself is an intensely messy and dangerous process, especially given turn-of-the-(last)-century technology, and Daniel is not only seeking to get the oil but to run a line out to the ocean without relying on the good graces of other oil companies who enjoy buying up wells rather than drilling on their own. There’s a lot of suspense here, with death and destruction lurking in every shaft. Anderson never loses sight of the story’s visceral side, and even though the picture nears three hours, it doesn’t feel like it.
But I’m tiptoeing around the main reason why this movie is so good, which is Daniel Day-Lewis. “Chewing the scenery” has certain negative connotations in critical jargon, and most of the time that makes sense; an actor going over the top can shatter our suspension of disbelief. Lewis may well be masticating pieces of the set, but he’s not going over the top, simply because there’s no top to go over. In Daniel Plainview he has been given a role that demands to be played at maximum intensity, a man of such drive and appetite and cunning and grotesquerie that the screen can barely contain him. And even though Lewis is playing this at top volume throughout, you can still pick up the subtle modulations when Plainview has to put his mind to work, has to restrain his passion for the sake of his greater greed. The film is worth seeing for this performance alone (one with echoes of John Huston in CHINATOWN and Jack Palance in, well, everything.) It’s to Dano’s credit that he holds his own against this beast of a star turn, and serves as an excellent counterpoint to Plainview’s character on several occasions.
Much more can probably be written about this film, since there’s so much to absorb the first time around. But it’s taken me too long to write what I have already, so I’ll say this- THERE WILL BE BLOOD is an excellent film, one which stretches Paul Thomas Anderson’s comfort zone and provides Daniel Day-Lewis with the opportunity to do with acting what Godzilla does with model buildings. It’s muddy and ugly and beautiful and grimly hilarious, and it ends exactly as it should. It’s overwhelming, but in a good way, like a Wagner opera or a Rolling Stones concert. I’m still not sure why it has the title it does, but everything else, I got no complaints.
Based on the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair
Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson