There Will Be Blood
The Stop Smiling Film Review
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
There Will Be Blood
Directed by P.T. Anderson
Reviewed by Michael Koresky
In the introduction to The Profits of Religion (1917), which he called a “study in Supernaturalism,” Upton Sinclair wrote: “Man is an evasive beast, given to cultivating strange notions about himself. He is humiliated by his simian ancestry, and tries to deny his animal nature, to persuade himself that he is not limited by its weaknesses nor concerned in its fate. And this impulse may be harmless, when it is genuine. But what are we to say when we see the formulas of heroic self-deception made use of by unheroic self-indulgence?” Sinclair’s common targets were distinctly American, the capitalist and the religious zealot, both seemingly locked in a self-serving quest for righteousness, and deceived by their own single-minded surety. With Sinclair’s status as a turn-of-the-century muckraker, tireless Socialist advocate, gubernatorial candidate, and even novelist all but forgotten by later generations (save 1906’s eternally cited The Jungle), a literal resuscitation of Sinclair’s point of view would be all but raising the dead. In There Will Be Blood, his new adaptation of Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, Paul Thomas Anderson wisely invokes Sinclair less as literal source material than as a guiding spirit. Anderson chose to focus only on the book’s first 150 pages, specifically the relationship between an oil prospector and his son, as well as the character of the antagonistic preacher Eli Sunday. Eliminating, among other things, the book’s advocacy for the rights of oilfield workers, Anderson’s whittling down of the novel brings his film even closer to Sinclair’s view of man as “evasive beast,” plagued by “unheroic self-indulgence.”
And there’s certainly a bit of the simian in Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Daniel Plainview. This is the towering well from which Anderson’s film will finally erupt: For all its measured pacing, exquisitely framed long takes and parched period beauty, There Will Be Blood finally cannot contain the reservoirs of Day-Lewis’s intense melancholy. Not so much a slow burn as a damning accumulation of moments, unforgiving in their spareness, the film seems structured like a two-and-a-half-hour self-denial capped by a horribly therapeutic self-actualization. Day-Lewis’s formidable height, physique, and lumbering gait create a vertical icon at odds with Anderson’s widescreen detail; Plainview, a composite of Sinclair’s protagonist and oil tycoon Edward Doheny (an unsuccessful gold prospector who, as legend has it, was the first to strike oil in Southern California, and who went on to become a millionaire) tromps through horizontal panorama like a scarecrow climbed down off his cross. It’s a terrific visual happenstance, and it lends Day-Lewis a demeanor not unlike that of a monolith amid uncultivated flatlands — if he’s a beacon pointing the way, what he’s guiding us toward is an America in which violence and greed become synonymous with industry and faith.
As if to reiterate his main character’s monolithic status, Anderson seemingly invites comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like Kubrick’s ever-present signal of progress, now literally dated twice over but as pointed expectantly toward the future as ever, There Will Be Blood collapses time in order to survey a century’s abrupt turn. Anderson’s film begins with the sound of an ominous drone, piercing through a dark screen, which eventually gives way to reveal Day-Lewis, deep below the ground, hammering away at the interior side of a well, possibly for silver. His face betrays nothing: so black is the screen that it’s quite a few minutes before we can make out a face that’s anything more than a cragged outline.
We’re soon almost imperceptibly shuttled forward — time is of the essence in all of Anderson’s films, and he has previously taffy-pulled it or looped it back upon itself in sophisticated ways. Though it’s constructed with a seemingly opposite pace, Magnolia predicts There Will Be Blood in its unerring focus on process, the excruciating minutiae of getting from here to there. In that earlier film’s breathtaking game-show sequence, which surveyed the twin breakdowns of Jeremy Blackman’s troubled whiz kid and Philip Baker Hall’s guilt-ridden host, time was stretched out to absurd, impossible lengths because Anderson so heavily crosscut between it and the film’s other stories. Yet Anderson used Jon Brion’s driven, rhythmic music to temporally connect his disparate strands, creating the impression of locomotive precision within such narrative chaos. It all seemed like it was happening right now; Blood, on the other hand, uses a similarly sophisticated structure to both collapse and expand time — some scenes end before you expect them to, while others seem to go on longer than they should. Johnny Greenwood’s expertly employed score, initially a discomfiting drone that attenuates a series of string shrieks, takes us from 1898 to 1902, and then to 1911, in the wink of an eye — not accompanied by vignettes so much as impressionistic narrative progressions: a sudden bone-crushing accident, a first gurgle of crude, an Ash Wednesday–like smear of oil on an infant’s forehead, all under a punishing California sky, clogged with congestive dust, and eternally pitched somewhere between twilight and dusk.
Already Anderson has established an atmosphere of thick, coiled dread, yet his purpose remains unclear. Will Plainview come to embody ravenous American industry or fall prey to it? What follows could be seen as a parable on nothing less than the making of America in the twentieth century — yet it plays as something more intimate, chilling and tangible than its lofty intentions assume. Anderson’s never been wanting for grandiose gestures (this, after all, was the man who climactically showered a biblical rainstorm of frogs down on a previously secular soap opera), and though There Will Be Blood might initially strike as his most ambitious or epic work, it’s also his most quietly insidious. Aided immeasurably by Greenwood’s music, which uses only period-accurate instruments and varies between John Williams-esque awe and echoed, arrhythmic abstraction, and Robert Elswit’s grave, hovering cinematography, suffused with the blue light of dawn or the inky black of night, the film is downright diabolical — perched like a gargoyle on the edge of a new century.
Perhaps the best barometer of Anderson’s astonishing success here is that he manages to invest this weighty allegory with such a wealth of character and nuance. At every moment There Will Be Blood is concerned with the heave-ho of history, excavating the past with derrick-like accuracy, but Anderson never loses sight of the two men at its center. Day-Lewis’s Plainview is the increasingly mangled, paranoid face of industry, while Paul Dano’s Christian preacher Eli Sunday, from an impoverished family whose 660 acres Plainview buys for the wellspring underneath, embodies the rise of Evangelical self-mythologization. These twin pillars of twentieth-century American psychological persuasion could have come across as mere outlines for an exegesis on demagoguery, yet in burrowing through to their rotting cores, Anderson creates not only a terrifyingly human detailing of the inexorable, all-consuming rise of zealotry but also an exquisite portrait of loneliness.
All of Anderson’s films thus far have featured main characters plagued by loneliness, eking out somewhat isolated existences and making plays at connection, whether it’s Hard Eight’s small-time gambler (Anderson’s original, still-avowed title, Sydney, emphasizes his solitary nature); Boogie Nights’ surrogate family of emotionally downtrodden porn stars, rejected by life and finding solace in each other’s company and bodies; Magnolia’s wildly dissatisfied bunch of sad sacks, searching for tenderness and/or redemption; or Punch-Drunk Love’s social misfit Barry Egan, living alone in a drab LA apartment, calling phone-sex operators to temper his lust. Anderson’s roster is no gallery of grotesques, however; the love Anderson has for his characters is undeniable and infectious, not to mention downright refreshing when one looks at a list of his filmmaking peers (Todd Solondz, Jason Reitman, Wes Anderson). Yet at times, his adoration has gone so far as to overly infantilize his characters: amidst Boogie Nights’ many malapropisms and occasional “dumb guy” jokes, Anderson uses the camera almost as protective swaddling, babying his characters in order to keep them out of harm’s way; likewise, when Adam Sandler badly tells an already terrible joke in Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson makes sure, through lighting, camera angle and performance, that no laughs will be had at his expense.
There Will Be Blood is a leap forward in how Anderson uses actors, then; for, aside from his character’s nearly mythic status, Anderson lets Day-Lewis be, oftentimes just allowing the camera to watch him think. By now it’s redundant to say that Day-Lewis’s performances feel “lived-in,” but the Irish actor’s embodiment of Plainview’s transformation, from single-minded “oil man” to cynic to rabid, paranoid misanthrope, is so exhilarating, it’s possible he may never live it down, like De Niro in Raging Bull or Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. He chews on his words like the terrific American character actor Donald Moffat, every syllable a meaty growl. There’s no winking, no attempt at ingratiating the audience (Magnolia, for all its loveliness and ingenuity, so tried to expose its characters’ beating hearts that it at times felt like a sermon); and even when Anderson’s mise-en-scène threatens to become slightly fussy, as in the sequence when Plainview encounters long-lost half-brother Henry (a grotty Kevin J. O’Connor), shot and sustained with detached Kubrickian mystery (it’s not unlike Torrance and Grady’s exquisitely scary sizing-up of each other in the Overlook bathroom in The Shining), Day-Lewis’s detailed naturalism slices through the static like a razor.
Though Day-Lewis and the intense, game Dano’s epic tête-à-tête creates the allegorical structure and backbone, the heart of the film lies in the relationship between Plainview and his adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). What Anderson achieves with the eerily taciturn Freasier is simply miraculous, and Day-Lewis’s interaction with the boy is at once stripped of sentimentality and invested with a hard-won love that feels enormously authentic. A central scene finds Plainview silently chasing after H.W. in the gloomy nighttime, trying to punish him for starting a fire; Anderson films it all in one discreetly situated take from their house’s doorway, their bodies mere shadows, their faces undetectable. It’s primitive in its desperate movements, like a cave painting come to life. And no words need to be spoken, so intuitively do we understand the odd bond between the two males.
Plainview’s relationships are a series of mano-a-mano confrontations, whether with his son, his brother, representatives from Union oil who’d like to buy him out, or his true spiritual enemy, Eli. There are hardly any women in There Will Be Blood; early on, Eli’s father, in order to broker a deal with Plainview for his land, instructs the women to leave the room, and thus they remain mostly absent for the rest of the film. The profundity of Plainview’s indifference to the opposite sex, and his attendant distrust of his fellow man, doesn’t really hit until a splendid sequence late in the film, which finds Plainview and Henry splayed out vulnerably under the sun’s rays, sunbathing and swimming at a desolate shore. Anderson shoots this idyll with Malick-like impressionism, with stolen, ominous glances, the waves lapping at the camera. The existential, bottomless nothing of the wide blue ocean has rarely been so intimately beheld; Day-Lewis, stripped on the beach, here becomes something less than larger-than-life, and his aloneness permeates the screen.
It’s the true horror of isolation that finally drives Blood to its chilling end, one which will be discussed even more passionately — for or against — than No Country for Old Men’s deceptively preemptive black-out. Yet though tonally different from the film’s more restfully explicated, if violently punctuated, first two-and-a-half hours, Anderson’s rabid denouement is hardly an awkwardly grafted-on epilogue (and Anderson’s final decade jump is summoned by one of the most elegant elapsed-time cuts I’ve ever seen). Some have already called the sudden burst of Anderson’s conclusion a mistake, as if the entire film weren’t designed with this endpoint in mind. With its mixture of existential reverie and boiling rage, There Will Be Blood is structurally reminiscent of the films of French enfant terrible Bruno Dumont, although the latter certainly doesn’t work in such grandly novelistic terms, and has little interest in creating an almost conventionally compelling narrative such as this. Day-Lewis finally does embody the beast that Upton Sinclair spoke of, although he’s no longer so evasive. It’s a fittingly fire-and-brimstone finale for a film that only pretended to soothe with a hymn, and it’s an inescapable expression of the sickly codependence of religion and big business in modern America. Without giving away too much, I’ll just say the final actions represent a true prophecy in a story filled with false prophets.