Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Man on Film: There Will Be Blood


In his latest opus, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (not to be confused with adult film director Paul Thomas or auteur du garbage Paul W. S. Anderson) has crafted his most spectacular work on what is already a formidable resume. There Will Be Blood finds Anderson exploring the all-consuming nature of greed as it pertains to the relationship between America's capitalism and religion, using the burgeoning oil industry in the American Southwest of the late 1800's and early 1900's as the setting and Daniel Day-Lewis--whose performance has been lauded with so many superlatives already that to try to assign another would be a futile act--to become his corruptible lead, Daniel Plainview.

At the film's opening, the audience is introduced to Plainview in his unformed state. Without speech, he toils away in a mine as a silver prospector. Here, he is early man, working with rudimentary tools in a cave. The basic hunter-gatherer, providing for himself and only himself without a support structure outside of himself. As he inadvertently discovers oil while silver prospecting, he gradually evolves from primitive man to man just starting out in a small society, with a small infrastructure of laborers working with him towards a modest goal. As he gains a son, Daniel Plainview becomes not merely a man in a society but the head of a family. It is at this point that he has become pre-industrial man. Starting from the base at which all man started, he has only one step to go to become modern man. The fact that this evolution occurs without any sound past some intermittent grunting and Jonny Greenwood's gripping, against-genre score and remains entirely enthralling is a bold testament to the power of the image over dialogue as a storytelling tool.

When the dialogue kicks in, a few years have passed, and we are introduced to Daniel Plainview, the post-Industrial Revolution man. The modern man. It is in Daniel's own voice that we come to know this incarnation. He explains who he is and his place in this society. Addressing his audience, he begins, "Ladies and Gentlemen, if I say I am an oil man, you will agree." With his son, H.W., at his side, his family business has grown. He is successful, and his love for his son is very real. His want for more wealth does not yet outweigh his love for family; his conquest has not yet devoured his humanity.

As the modern capitalist, Daniel ventures into Little Boston--a settlement in the American west much as one might have imagined the settlement at Plymouth as the American colonies were taking their first shape--and sees to cultivating its previously untapped resource. Just as he begins to lay down claim to the sea of oil beneath them, religion introduces itself to the mix in the form of Eli Sunday, a faith healer in its rawest form. As the oil infrastructure grows, so, to, does the Church of the Third Revelation. And as Eli's power grows, Daniel's adversarial view of Eli grows, too.

Daniel given the chance to make a small concession to Eli, and obviously to religion as a whole. With the "competition" in him getting the better of him, Daniel publicly rebukes Eli, favoring his younger sister, who has befriended H.W. H.W. is then stripped of his hearing in an on-site accident immediately thereafter. Losing a part of his family, albeit symbolically, Daniel lashes out at Eli the next time they meet, and Daniel's hatred inflames Eli.

Daniel's half-brother, Henry Brands, comes into the picture which enables Daniel to continue on with the family business, but as he sends his son away, he begins to lose some of what was keeping him human. Continuing on the road to success, his greed begins to take a stranglehold on him. No longer the provider in the immediate sense for his son, Daniel becomes more and more hellbent on success. As his brother turns out to be less than what he purported himself to be, Daniel sees that the family he had tried to construct in H.W.'s absence cannot be salvaged and he destroys it, and with that destruction he decimates most of what was left of his humanity.

When faced with an opportunity to acquire the last tract of land needed to build a pipeline, Daniel agrees to be cleansed of his sins in the church, but after yelling to all that would hear that he had abandoned his son, he whispers to a power-tripping Eli what one can only assume is the film's title. He has decidedly rebuked religion for the last time, and his humanity seems to be surely be leaving him next.

Even the return of his son--in a beautifully choreographed tracking shot--cannot save him (since Daniel can no longer communicate with the entity that previously kept him connected to mankind), as is made disturbingly clear in a scene which is bizarrely marked with Daniel Plainview calling out a competitor with a napkin draped over his face. Having earlier called into question Daniel's parenting skills only to be threatened with death, he sees the Standard Oil representative again at dinner. Through his behavior it is evident that anything which had been tethering him to his humanity has been cut away, leaving him adrift in his fully co-opted world.

Years later, we are brought us to Plainview's home. This Daniel has crawled inside the bottle and completely lost touch with humanity. He shoots things for perverse recreation in his mansion, which shows signs of having once been nice only to be later savaged by his lunatic binges. When a newly married H.W. comes to see his father, he sets him free once and for all in a brutal manner, and whether he is doing so for his son or out of spite, he does save his son from what one would imagine would be a similar fate. Unfortunately for Daniel, he is also parting with the last shred of his own humanity, and as we leave Daniel Plainview he has become a heartless beast not hesitating to vanquish any and all comers.

Through all the film, Daniel Day-Lewis turns in his greatest performance in what has been arguably the best career over the past 25 years. The rage that seethes beneath his black eyes is so palpable you cannot help but be taken in by Daniel Plainview. As insane as he gets, the audience still finds themselves rooting for Daniel Plainview, which is a credit to Daniel Day-Lewis' flawless turn. Paul Dano holds his own here as well, which is no small feat, and quite simply amazes. Were it not for these two actors, there is no doubt in my mind that the film would still have been immensely watchable, as Robert Elswit's cinematography was otherworldly, and absolutely deserving of the Academy Award it won.

Honestly, had There Will Be Blood won Best Picture over No Country for Old Men, I--for one--would not have objected. In fact, the scope of There Will Be Blood possibly makes it more impressive. This film was that amazing.

1 comment:

Little Brother said...

I got tireless throughout the middle, which hung over into the final scenes when more took place.

Agreed with Daniel Day Lewis' performance. He saved the movie for me because he did such a good job.

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