Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Finishing Our Fate

At this point, it is nearly impossible not to throw accolades and comparisons to essential directors at 37 year old Paul Thomas Anderson. Film after film, Anderson has shown considerable skill and versatility in the types of cinema that he can orchestrate. His latest feature, There Will Be Blood, is a considerably different film stylistically than anything Anderson has done prior, but that should come as no surprise considering the vast differences in Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch Drunk Love. However, There Will Be Blood is Anderson’s most confidently produced, instantly striking and unsettling work yet.

Anchored by the dazzling cinematography of Robert Elswit, who has shot all of Anderson’s features, the first twenty minutes of There Will Be Blood is pure cinema at its finest. Told without dialogue, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) starts out alone in a dark mine shaft searching for gold. He breaks his leg in the shaft and has to drag himself out in order to go and stake his claim, which becomes the first step in his long road to becoming a dominate, wildly successful oil mogul. Elswit’s images of the loner dragging himself into destiny is the precursor for the rest of Plainview’s story. Before a single word is spoken or a piece of exposition given, Day-Lewis and Elswit establish Plainview’s overwhelming desire to succeed no matter the circumstances. It also defines Plainview as a singular man working his way to the top.

Despite this, from the moment we hear Plainview speak, he has a right hand man, or boy as it may be, to create his “family business.” Plainview’s son, HW, is being groomed throughout the opening into a young mogul himself, in constant preparation to take over the business. HW is by Plainview’s side when he turns down offers and when he accepts them, the most important of which comes from a mysterious visitor named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano). Paul sells information to Daniel of a place where oil seeps through the ground: his own family’s ranch. Daniel and HW go to the ranch saying that they are hunting quail, but their intentions are not deeply masked as they quickly find oil and place an offer on the ranch. While Paul is nowhere to be found, his identical twin brother, Eli, is skeptical of Daniel’s aspirations. Eli asks for a $5,000 contribution to his Church of the Third Revelation in order for the ranch to be sold. So begins the battles between radical faith, wealth, family, and greed that carries the bulk of the film.

There has already been a lot said about Daniel Day-Lewis’ magnificent performance as the cruel and defiant Daniel. His character grows throughout the film into Operatic, melodramatic proportions, all the way into the pivotally essential ending. The character of Daniel seems reprehensible by many account, but Day-Lewis’ transcendent performances makes him witty, commanding, and, oftentimes, likable. However, as Daniel’s ego and aspirations grow, so does the viewer’s lack of sympathy, which is a credit to the performance. Even when sympathy is thrown out the window, the capper of which is a glorious baptism scene, the film has become so enraptured in who Daniel is and why he does the things he does that it is even more fascinating with a polarizing, representational figure front and center to focus the film’s meditations.

With Day-Lewis attracting most of the critical attention, Paul Dano’s strong performance should not go unrecognized. Notice the ever so slight similarities and differences in the way he plays Paul and Eli, confounding the situation of the brothers into sure post-film discussion. While the seemingly humble Dano is pitted against the monstrously large aspects of Day-Lewis, Eli holds his own ground against the oncoming train that is Daniel Plainview. During his sermons, Eli’s commanding strengths, yet crucial weaknesses are subtly present and are sure to be appreciated more with further viewings. Eli transforms into a larger than life presence that may be dwarfed in comparison to the lion, Daniel Plainview, but he is strong enough to walk into Daniel’s lions den and stare down the beast that faces him.

While these descriptions of Daniel (in this case, Eli) and the lion’s den (in this case, Daniel) are, thankfully, not so overt in the film, There Will Be Blood has Biblical aspirations similar the sudden raining frogs in the denouement of Magnolia. This is not to say that religion is the key aspect to the film, but the spectacle of the film, building to the already highly debated ending, is on that large and grand of a scale. The extreme religiosity of Eli is in direct conflict with the rabid individualism of Daniel, yet it is not these aspects that define the direction of There Will Be Blood. The story of the film is certainly Daniel’s; it just so happens that Eli’s church remains an obstacle longer than anything else that may slow down Daniel’s path to extraordinary, godlike success.

There have been several reviews from prominent critics that cite Daniel Plainview as a character very similar to Charles Foster Kane, especially in the Plainview mansion that is shown at the end. Roger Ebert in his 3.5 star review says that the difference between Kane and Plainview is that “Plainview lacks a ‘Rosebud.’ He regrets nothing, misses nothing, pities nothing...” This, however, is simplifying the Plainview character that is built throughout the course of the film. Watch closely the relationship between Daniel and HW, and then Daniel expressions during his “false” atoning in the baptism scene. It is clear, at least in this narrator’s humble opinion, that Plainview is searching for his Rosebud. While Plainview may never find it and, in result, turns into the difficult man that Ebert describes, the fact that there is a constant search is part of what makes Plainview’s character so fascinating and the final confrontation so decisive and utterly brilliant. There can only be Brahms-ian harmony, which is radically different than Johnny Greenwood’s wonderfully unsettling score, with the conclusion the film gives. With that accord finally coming about, the last line of There Will Be Blood is simple yet, somehow, completely mind-blowing and a bafflingly conclusive summation of the film’s journey.

There is certainly more room for discussion, disagreement, and discourse beyond what these words, or anyone else’s, allow for in the case of There Will Be Blood, not the least of which is if the film uphold Upton Sinclair’s socialist ideological principles, as some critics have bemoaned. Given the film’s limited release at the moment, word will surely continue to spread, the film will continue to be seen, and battle lines will likely be drawn over the depths and elements of this lofty, dynamic, and essential epic. The dialogue that There Will Be Blood incites is exactly what a masterpiece like this deserves.

by James Hansen


Brandon Colvin said...

I cannot express in words how motherfucking pumped I am to see this film.

January 18th cannot come soon enough.

Anonymous said...

I tried my best to give some insights for viewing rather than a bunch of stuff that happens, as some reviews have chosen to do. Every review I have read gives away some key stuff that I didn't know going in...wanted to avoid that as much as possible. I hope the review helps in the long run!

Stay pumped! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

w. said...

i think i literally salivated at the mouth when i saw the trailer.

Anonymous said...

I have become a sort of junkie for PTA over the years, and this film is no exception. Now this movie has me fiending something bad.

I am shaking with anticipation for this film. It absolutely cannot come soon enough...

Anonymous said...

Also: excellent review. Very well-written and insightful.

Anonymous said...

Seeing this one tomorrow afternoon. Couldn't be more excited.

Excellent write up....