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Friday, April 25, 2008
'There Will Be Blood'
Digging deep to get to the dark stuff
It's 1898, somewhere in Southern California. A grit-encrusted silver miner works in his pit, scrabbling for a find. In wordless scenes, in the middle of nowhere — set to a queasy sweep of strings — we see this man fight with nature to get at her resources, sinews bulging as he hacks away with a pick, the earth shuddering as he blows a hole with dynamite. When an accidental fall leaves him with a broken leg, the sudden find of a hunk of silver — and oozing, trickling oil — motivates him to crawl back out of the pit, inch by painful inch.
What does the pit do to a man? We're only 10 minutes into Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," but we've already got an idea: It makes him harder than the rock he's tearing through, and it gives him a tactile, almost personal relationship with the shale that callouses his hands, the oil that covers his skin. This isn't some abstract commodity he's selling; this is his. It's entered his pores, lodged in his cells.
The miner, Daniel Plainview, soon becomes a boss, hiring a crew and devising various equipment to get the oil to the surface. The pit is a harsh environment; accidents lead to sudden and nasty deaths. But Plainview barely bats an eyelid. As played by Daniel Day Lewis — who won a Best Actor Oscar for this, his most intense incarnation since Bill the Butcher in "Gangs of New York" — Plainview remains Sphinx-like, expressions hidden behind his bushy mustache, with only the hard glint in his eyes betraying his one thought: Get on with it. Get the oil.
The film follows Plainview as he moves from working the pit to success as an independent oil man. To keep adding to his possessions, he becomes a bit of a salesman. He adopts a jes'-plain-folk persona, telling farmers (who he intends to buy out on the cheap) how he's just "a family man," parading his "partner" and son H. W. (Dillon Freasier) to put a mask of reassurance over his greedy intentions. Not that the cute little boy is even his own son; H. W. was orphaned when his father died in a pit accident, but Plainview keeps that to himself.
Anderson has always been drawn to this sort of all-American huckster; just think of Tom Cruise's obnoxious self-help coach in "Magnolia," or Philip Baker Hall's Vegas grifter in "Hard Eight," characters who think they know something the suckers don't. In "There Will Be Blood," he doubles the stakes. When Plainview gets a tip and finds oil oozing out of the ground on the Sunday family farm, the oil man meets his nemesis in the farmer's son Eli (Paul Dano.)
Like Plainview, Eli is a canny con man, and just as driven; he manages to coerce a "donation" out of Plainview in return for his cooperation, and he uses it to build a church — the Church of the Third Revelation — where he leads the community as a supposed faith healer with a freak-out style of preaching. When he starts proselytizing to Plainview's workers and tries to insinuate his authority — spiritually, of course — over Plainview's business, the oil man snaps, and thus begins a feud that will last the film.
Big oil vs. expansionist religion — it's a loaded combination, and on some level Anderson is tapping into the ur-myth of modern America. Forget heroic loner cowboys and the Western; these are the forces really driving America today, the rapacious businessman and the mendacious preacher.
Anderson, to his credit, remains focused on the period, the history, the characters; any allegories to modern America are clearly left to the viewer.
The plot thickens with Plainview's increasingly bitter relationship with H. W., and the appearance of his long-lost brother, Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor), the only person he opens up to. "I hate most people," he confides, darkly. "I want to earn enough money so I can just get away from everyone." Expressing his paranoia and misanthropy seems to help . . . until he starts suspecting Henry too of only wanting his money.
Anderson, with nearly three hours to work with, meanders along in a Terence Malick ("Days of Heaven") sort of way, leaving plenty of time to frame the characters within the landscape (note the Oscar for cinematographer Robert Elswit), and to even play out entire scenes to (Radiohead guitarist and composer) Jonny Greenwood's eerie score, which is constantly building tension, even when Elswit is offering a quiet scene of natural beauty.
"There Will Be Blood" is dedicated to Robert Altman, who so clearly was Anderson's influence in the latter's "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia." But this time around it seems like he's been studying Kubrick as there are clear traces of "2001: A Space Odyssey," "The Shining" and especially "Barry Lyndon," another epic portrait of success at the expense of all that really matters in life. Anderson has earned the comparison, and if "There Will Be Blood" is not his best film — the coda seems strained and protracted — well, "Barry Lyndon" wasn't Kubrick's best either. But just like Kubrick, even an imperfect Anderson is capable of some of the best, most intensely focused filmmaking.