Jan 14, 2008

There Will Be Blood

This is the movie that deserves the awards as best American film of the year.
It is certainly a very idiosyncratic, original film, completely different in scope, ambition and execution to anything that has come out of this country in a long time. This is a spare, uncluttered, enormous film and its creative choices are bracing.
For starters, the creepy Gothic typeface of the title, the unsettling score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, and the lengthy wordless opening already signal that we are in for something out of the ordinary. The opening reminded me of the beginning of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet instead of primates discovering weapons, here we have an enterprising American, Daniel Plainview, played with electrifying totality by Daniel Day-Lewis, singlehandedly mining for silver in the inhospitable landscape of California.
The film is based on Oil!, an Upton Sinclair novel; another sign that there is something big and fearless about this endeavor. Novels are adapted to the screen all the time. Almost forgotten novels by almost forgotten American writers with socialist leanings is a different story.
There Will Be Blood is the saga of the rise and fall of Daniel Plainview, an oil prospector at the turn of the century. It is the saga of the birth of modern America. Of ambition and achievement and progress and the moral squalor that comes with unchecked greed.
And it may be the most gorgeously uncluttered period piece ever filmed. It is a big movie, with big people and big expanses, but it is spared down to the bones. There is only the parched, mineral earth, the lonely men inventing things as they go along in the West, the big sky, the rickety wood structures of the first primitive oil rigs, the shiny black goo that sprouts from the dry land. Everything looks hardscrabble and bare: it has a biblical feel to it. In the fantastic production design by Jack Fisk there is nothing to distract from the powerful story of self-interest and faith colliding.
In this morality tale, Plainview comes in conflict with the young pastor of a bare bones splinter evangelical church, played with gusto and guts by the very talented Paul Dano. These two rivals are just two sides of the same coin: shameless American hucksters.
Plainview buys land cheaply from poor farmers with promises of roads and education and a concern for family: he lies. The relevance of this movie to our sorry lot today is sterling. You can almost hear in Plainview's speech the usual bromides of current politicians and corporations alike. The seductive "democratic" sophistry of American self-interest, couched as progress, existed from the very beginning and it hasn't changed much. Now it's called spin and P.R. And indeed there is progress in the scraggly little town, but the personal price and even the communal price end up being too high.
As for faith, Pastor Eli Sunday (Dano) speaks in tongues and casts out the devil in his parishioners' bodies with great dramatic flair, but he is also a lying fake. And in his insistence on interfering with business, and profiting from it, one cannot but be reminded of the way in which the religious right has grabbed the Republican party by the balls and keeps on squeezing. And then there is the main culprit, oil, which should send shudders of recognition down our collective spines.
I will not go into the details of the plot. I advise you to settle into the movie and let its stately rhythms unfold. Your patience will be amply rewarded. This is not a sentimental movie, and it is not a screed or a holier than thou liberal sermon. Plainview is a complex character, so is Pastor Eli. Nothing is plain good or evil. There is much ambiguity. The movie and the characters' motives will remain in your head long after you leave the theater. But what I most admire is the texture and the tone of the film. The drama is basic, elemental, as are the human motivations, as is the landscape, as is the production design, the music, the almost monotone palette of the fantastic cinematography by Robert Elswit, and of course the spare, powerful and economical script by the director, Paul Thomas Anderson. The power of the movie comes from from this puritanical restraint. Some of it reminds me of Dreyer, as in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Strong and emotional and bare. This is the directorial work of the year. Alas, since it is not a feel good movie, but a sad and somber tale of crazed ambition, most likely others will win the popularity contest.
As for the actors, Daniel Day-Lewis turns in a completely over the top performance but it works because Plainview has to be larger than life. He embodies American achievement in all its contradictions, and it is not a pretty picture. Plainview is a great, eccentric character and Day-Lewis chews the scenery with huge gestures but also with a cunning mind, a melliflous voice (he sounds just like Richard Nixon), total charisma. You can see Plainview's mind working, which is something this gifted actor does really well. He lets you in the workings of the character's mind. Plainview is a pioneer, an admirable can-doer, a man who will more or less behave as long as things go his way; but he is also a ruthless, nasty misanthrope, and a stubborn unbeliever. Paul Dano is excellent as his nemesis, the equally focused, ambitious, histrionic pastor. Their scenes together are a sight to behold. Powerful, brutal, unsettling and even funny. The best scene in the movie takes place in the church. Plainview sells his soul, not to the Devil, but to God, in whom he does not believe. Anything for a buck. Pastor Eli basically shoves the religion down his throat. Sound familiar? It will make your blood curl.
I am forever grateful to PT Anderson for putting this capitulation to hypocrisy on the big screen. Even better, Plainview's rejection of the false pieties of certain clergymen is not meant to be interpreted as a moral judgment. In fact, he's all the more heroic for resisting them. At least he is true to himself, until devastatingly, he is not. However, this one trait of his doesn't seem particularly American. Americans seem to have endless sympathy for religious manipulators.
The moral of this epic morality tale is that when confronted with self-interest, morality does not stand a fighting chance. It's a pretty serious indictment of the ways of this country, if you think about it.
If you will not stop at anything in the name of progress and ambition and free enterprise, then you will destroy your soul.

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