Thursday, January 24, 2008

Review: There Will Be Blood

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson Release
Date: December 26, 2007
Running time: 158 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributors: Paramount Vintage

“Ladies and gentlemen… I’ve traveled over half our state to be here tonight. I couldn’t get away sooner because my new well was coming in at Coyote Hills and I had to see about it. That well is now flowing at two thousand barrels and it’s paying me an income of five thousand dollars a week. I have two others drilling and I have sixteen producing at Antelope. So, ladies and gentlemen… if I say I’m an oil man you will agree.

You have a great chance here, but bear in mind, you can lose it all if you’re not careful. Out of all men that beg for a chance to drill your lots, maybe one in twenty will be oilmen; the rest will be speculators — men trying to get between you and the oilmen — to get some of the money that ought by rights come to you. Even if you find one that has money, and means to drill, he’ll maybe know nothing about drilling and he’ll have to hire out the job on contract, and then you’re depending on a contractor that’s trying to rush the job through so he can get another contract just as quick as he can. That is the way this works.”

That is the opening dialogue of the movie by oil man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). It comes no less than 15 minutes into the picture and tells us all we really need to know about the man. But we don’t know this to be fact until the end of the film, more than two hours later.

There Will Be Blood is director Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest and best film to date. Coming from me, the last sentence says more about this film that anything else you will find in this review. Singularly due to the fact that I am a huge PTA fan. Eleven years after the debut of his first feature film, Hard Eight, the man has made a grand total of five films. Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia (one of my top five favorites of all time), Punch-Drunk Love, and now There Will Be Blood. With a resume like that, why go for volume? While all of his films thus far have been excellent, There Will Be Blood is his most creatively daring, by far his most ambitious, and easily the crowning achievement of a brilliant career.

PTA’s films, like those of Tarantino and Scorsese, are trademarked for creating a distinct universe — a universe where he uses these large ensembles to tell elaborately intertwining stories that barrel along seemingly unrelated to each other, slowly and methodically peeling back the layers while simultaneously showing the growth and self-destruction of its characters until a transformation is complete. There Will Be Blood does this, but replaces the cast and multiple storylines for that of one man and his many conflicts. The results are some of the best filmmaking of this decade.

You’ve all heard the reports, and I can tell you that for once, they are not inflated or oversold: Daniel Day-Lewis is absolutely remarkable in the film. Anderson may have created the character of Daniel Plainview on paper, but Day-Lewis immerses himself in the character so deeply that he becomes Plainview, redefining the concept of the craft of acting itself. Daniel Plainview is as ruthless as he is mesmerizing. He is a man who creates tension simply by participating in conversation. He commands the direction of the conversation so much that when asked a question he doesn’t like, he simply continues as if it were never asked.

There Will Be Blood is a sprawling epic of a story told with exacting precision. The movie takes place during the span of 29 years and in the hands of a lesser-skilled director, it could have been a brutally boring mess. The movie tells the story of Daniel Plainview, an oil man of modest beginnings, who in 1898 discovers oil while prospecting for silver. He begins drilling and soon earns enough money to build a small drilling company. By 1911, he has become one of the wealthiest, most successful oil men in America.

Plainview is approached by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who sells him an oil lead on his family’s property in Little Boston, CA. When he arrives and attempts to buy the land, Paul’s twin brother, Eli (also Paul Dano), raises the price — the lion’s share of which is intended to be used in the founding of his own church. This is the first of many run-in’s between the two men and the beginning of a conflict that will span the next 16 years and the rest of the film.

So many reviews of this movie claim that it is about the rise and fall of Daniel Plainview — this is only partially right. On the surface that is the story, but underneath there are uglier elements at play that make this movie what it is at its core, like discussions of concepts such as family, capitalism, and religion. Daniel Plainview’s only family is his “son and business partner” H.W. Plainview. While he primarily uses H.W. to soften his sales pitch at various towns along the way, I think he truly cares for the boy. That is, until an accident at one of the oil wells permanently impairs H.W.’s hearing. Take notice when the accident occurs: the derrick explodes and Daniel immediately tends to H.W. until he realizes the injuries aren’t life threatening. He then spends the rest of the night and into the following day staring up at the burning remains until the problem is resolved — as if nothing else in the known world exists but him. He gets angry at his son for, in his mind, committing the crime of going deaf. This shows fallibility and weakness that Daniel cannot surround himself with if he is to be as successful as he intends.

That Plainview is driven by greed is not the surprise. It’s the fact that he does so while operating as if it were a sickness, which lends to the idea that he doesn’t have a choice. By planting that suggestion, it implies that pity should befall him for his actions. This is the stroke of genius by Anderson and realized by Day-Lewis’s performance that makes this film work so well. By laying the foundation as they did, and after everything Plainview does in the movie, we somehow do not hold him accountable for his actions because he did them all not by choice, but a matter of instinct. And we quietly root for him the whole time, even if we don’t like admitting as such.

The main contention in the film is the conflict between religion and capitalism. By showing that a complete and total devotion to either ideal would result in a flawed conclusion, the movie does not take a side. It doesn’t need to. It’s almost as if they presented both sides of the argument and allowed them to crucify each other. Had each man understood that they could have both co-existed, things may have ended differently; although not nearly as engaging. As it were, the men wound up being consumed with their own contorted sense of victory as well as with proving each other and the ideals they represented, wrong. While I think they could have coexisted with each other, once each were hell bent on destroying the other it makes you wonder, would one exist at all without the other? If each man began at opposite ends of the morale spectrum their paths were clearly marked on a crash course to the middle towards an inevitable conclusion.

Many people will hate the ending of this film. My response to those people: you obviously haven’t been paying attention. The end of this movie is as perfect as anyone could have ever imagined. It is supposed to be unsettling. It is not supposed to go down easy (like say, a milkshake?). You just spent the last 150 minutes watching Plainview build his empire, achieve his own distorted notion of success at all costs, sacrifice anything and everything to serve his own intentions while becoming a slave to his own pride, and what, you wanted a happy ending?

At the end of the film we see Plainview as a financially wealthy recluse, jailed in the prison of his own creation and refusing to have learned the method by which to communicate with his son (sign language). But he is still searching. He has all the money he could have ever wanted, the fame, and even the reclusion that he thought would make him happy, but he doesn’t come alive until the final minutes of the film. I will not ruin the events that transpire but there is a precise moment at the very end where he feels he has nothing left to fight for — like he has finally won. He finally defeated the man, the church, and more importantly, religion itself. The same religion he spent so much time trying to avoid and the very religion that failed him when his son went deaf. Because capitalism WAS his religion, he finally got what he had been fighting for his entire life. It is only then can make his final declarative statement that perfectly sums up the entire movie:

“I’m finished.”

And there’s the rub.

**** out of ****

1 comment:

patrick said...

finally got to see the infamous There Will Be Blood... Daniel-Day Lewis' performance was top-notch. He takes well to the overbearing, violent father-figure role -- he also did this in Gangs of New York.