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Sunday, June 19, 2011

There Will Be Blood

Rating: ★★★★

I drink your milkshake.

If Daniel Day-Lewis tells you he’s a Mohican Indian, you believe him. If he tells you he has cerebral palsy and can only use his left foot, you believe him. And if he tells you he’s an oil man, you will agree. He’s taken much criticism in his wild approaches to method acting, but I’ve often said in his defense - yes, the journey might be outlandish, but it’s all about what’s on screen. It’s the performance, not just the preparation.

There Will Be Blood is a dark comedy, in the same way that Lars Von Trier’s Dogville is; it is sound and furious, satirizing nothing. A rare period piece that feels lifted from its implied period, rather than feeling filmed in 2007, the film takes place between 1898 and 1927. I’m always pleased when a period film manages not to suffer from what I call ‘Yesterday Syndrome’. The film has an early American, as well as an oily and slick, feel. Paul Thomas Anderson’s screenplay is derived from only pieces of Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!”

More after the cut --

The first fifteen minutes of the film are practically silent. There's only one, grunted line of dialogue. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is mining for silver, hoping to turn some sort of meager profit. He is muscular, yet curiously underfed. He and his pick ax populate the film's opening fifteen minutes, while we watch him do honest and very hard work. And if there's one thing Daniel Plainview is, it's a hard worker, almost to a point of corruption. He falls down his mine shaft and breaks his leg, only hauling himself back up to the top, and into civilization to turn his profit. He believes in defeat, he just wants no part of it. And as his search for silver turns into a discovery of oil, we learn just the kind of man he is. Ironically, he has neither a plain view, nor is he a man of few words. He's a natural born talker, and could sell you that famous bridge you've heard so much about. 
After acquiring his new fortune, and a loyal workforce, he acquires an orphan whom he calls HW, hoping that the boy's young and adorable face might make people a bit more willing to sign over their land to him. 

One night, a man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) comes to Plainview and Co., seeking money for information. There's a town a ways away called Little Boston where Paul Sunday's family ranch is, and directly under the ground there are pools of oil. Plainview makes no bones about telling the 'boy' that if he's lying, he'll give back more than that money. Plainview takes HW on a timely quail hunting trip to Little Boston, and just happens to find oil there, and announces his plans to buy the entire town so that they might set up a drill. Not only does he promise to drill, he promises new roads and schools and money for their local church, ran by Paul's brother Eli (Paul Dano). After agreeing to let Eli bless the derrick on its opening day, and later snubbing him, a lifelong rivalry is born. Dehumanization, after humiliation, after sin. Accidents keep occurring on the oil fields, Eli's church grows beyond its means, and HW is deafened by an explosion. 

Paul Thomas Anderson is a tricky director, and he uses that to his advantage here. Questions might be asked about why Paul Dano plays both Paul and Eli, but we'll never have the answer. We can speculate that the film hints at Eli suffering from schizophrenia, but that might not get us anywhere. Also, it's never a point. It's almost like we're not supposed to ask. Other questions can be raised about Daniel Plainview and his view on humanity - he hates mankind, probably including himself. He trusts no one, but it feels like he wants to. When he promises Little Boston schools and roads and crops, his delivery makes you wonder if he believes it, or if he wants to. He might be considered a false prophet, in the same way some might consider Eli to be. They believe in what they do, but business comes first. Eli demands more and more money for his church, and Plainview keeps promising it. Eventually. Without Eli, it becomes clear, there might not be a Daniel. 

Plainview speaks to people eloquently. It's his job. And Paul Thomas Anderson's screenplay leaves no room for the listener to be bored. His dialogue is quick and exact, when it needs to be, and threatening and languid when required. Part of that charm is extracted by Daniel Day-Lewis' performances as Plainview. He completely disappears inside of his character, almost to a point of possession. And of course, under that voice of his, we buy into the image just as much as the people of Little Boston do. The upside of this is that we get to see the man behind the mustache, as it were. You can feel Plainview's contempt for people in the way he moves around them, the way he speaks to and near them, and how he looks at their surroundings. And for those who can't pinpoint where that familiar voice comes from, it is the voice of director John Huston, almost to the inflection. Paul Dano's performance as Eli winds up being overshadowed by the monster that Day-Lewis creates, but if separated and inspected, it's career best work. 

It's easy to call PT Anderson's direction inspired, but another word I don't hear too often is original. The film has been called the first great American movie of the 2000's, and has been compared to Citizen Kane - his direciton is, without a doubt, inspired by Orson Welles, but it is very much in Anderson's own vein. It's his largest scale picture, but with the same grandeur he showed in Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, etc. He has an eye for set pieces, as demonstrated by a particular scene where an oil derrick catches fire, blowing oil all over the place. And when matched with Johnny Greenwood's (of Radiohead fame) score, the set piece is made perfect. Greenwood's score resides over the film with the same sort of presence that Daniel Day-Lewis does - it is forceful and minute all at once. It sounds the way a spider web might, if given a voice. And it moves the way that Plainview might, if he wanted to move from his spot. But, that wouldn't seem very likely.