Monday, January 07, 2008

There Will Be Brilliance


directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Ciarán Hinds, others
loosely based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair

And I will break the pride of your power, and make your heaven as iron, and your earth as brass.
–Leviticus 26:19

Why this verse should come to mind after seeing “There Will Be Blood,” I can’t really say. I’m not a member of any church, and I don’t ordinarily go around quoting Scripture after going to the movies—even Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Nor is the quote particularly relevant: the film isn’t about drought (not in the literal sense, at least), even if it is filled with parched, unforgiving landscapes. And while it is to some degree a study of god-defying pride, whether that pride gets broken is, well, a complicated question.

Still, I keep the epigraph because there's something peculiarly biblical about the epic scale of “TWBB”—not so much the narrative itself as the forces that drive it. So much so, in fact, that it’s best viewed as an ongoing conflict between opposing forces, both human and superhuman, internal and external, rather than as a narrative in the usual terms of plot and character development. Perhaps that’s why it’s so hard to summarize what the film is “about” or to fully convey its strange, searing power.

In the most conventional sense “TWBB” is “about” the rise of one man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), from toiling silver miner to successful oil magnate in the still-developing California of the early 20th century. Stripped down further, it's about the fierce, lifelong struggle of that one man, a ruthless but oddly compelling egomaniac, to dominate everything and everyone around him and to crush the obstacles that confront him along the way. The obstacles include an equally ambitious (and unscrupulous) young evangelical preacher (Paul Dano) who becomes Plainview’s chief nemesis; the explosion and collapse of a derrick that might well be styled an act of God; assorted individuals and companies who attempt, at their peril, to take advantage of Plainview; and his own inner demons, particularly those arising out of his complex relationship—a mix of calculated self-advancement and genuine tenderness—with his young adopted son (played as a child by the angel-faced Dillion Freasier, as an adult by Russell Harvard).

More broadly, “TWBB,” which is very loosely based on an Upton Sinclair novel, can be and has been variously interpreted as a disjointed parable of the American West, a dark satire of the myth of the self-made man, and a subtle commentary on that other American myth of endless national expansion—a myth that in reality is steeped in, and compromised by, its ties to the cynical manipulation of oil, religion, and, of course, blood. “TWBB” is certainly all of these things, yet the feeling one takes away from it is something simpler and more elemental. At bottom, it seems most concerned with exploring the question of whether man is ultimately master of his own fate. And it seems to suggest that he is not, even when he is most aggressively asserting his will. (Emphasis on “man” and “he”: women have virtually no part in this world, nor can one easily imagine what significant part they could have in Plainview’s existence.)

This is ambitious but diffuse, potentially unwieldy stuff, and no part of “TWBB” would ring remotely true were it not for certain key elements that hold the film together. One is, of course, the acting—in particular by my dear old DDL, the first actor I ever worshipped purely for his thespian skills and not his good looks. In a year filled with exceptionally strong male lead performances, his is a standout among standouts. He manages to make Plainview larger than life, yet not inhuman and not invulnerable; insane, yes, but holding his insanity in a tightly controlled grip, except at certain moments; and always brimming with barely suppressed rage and other, more complicated emotions, like the oil well that eventually erupts beyond all human control. In his best scene, his face seems to contract even as his eyes flash lightning and his voice thunders, and we catch a brief glimpse into Plainview’s soul. It’s a riveting moment, unrivalled by any other actor this year. Young Dano, for his part, smartly doesn’t try to steal this scene or any other from his co-star, yet accomplishes no small feat by holding his own as the more insidious competitor whom Plainview despises without ever underestimating. His Eli Sunday is tonally perfect as the snake-oil salesman who’s almost, but not quite, a match for the real-oil profiteer. Where Dano does flag somewhat is only at the very end, a difficult and already-controversial scene that tips the balance of power between the two adversaries in a way that some may find unconvincing. (I, perhaps somewhat perversely, found it hilarious, and am still trying to decide whether that was Anderson’s intended effect.)

But the phenomenal acting isn’t the film’s only, or even its most powerful, cinematic glue. That honor goes to the brilliantly minimalist score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Spare and hauntingly dissonant, at once meditative and hair-raising, and like Plainview’s character, composed of a tightly constructed order that, with each ominous plink, always seems to be on the verge of splintering into chaos, it’s about as far removed from the sledgehammer emotional cues of even the most effective Hollywood music (which, by the way, I love, but which would have been wildly ill-suited to this film) as possible. Combined with the hypnotic visuals and the occasional ironic recursions into the more traditionalist strains of Brahms’ violin concerto, it practically takes “TWBB” into a new sphere of art—a kind of symphony with a visual dimension.

Which is not in any way to marginalize the latter, or to downplay the tremendous impact of Robert Elswit’s cinematography: To this day, I still have the image burned into my mind of a pillar of flame against a smoke-darkened sky, dwarfing the men scurrying around and bathing them by turns in an infernal red glow and inky shadow—the very picture of hell, a hell at once of Plainview’s making and, in another sense, his unmaking. But it’s precisely this fusion of visual and aural signage that succeeds in immersing the mere spectator into the hyperreality of Daniel Plainview’s world.

And therein lies both the film’s supreme strength and its one flaw. “There Will Be Blood” doesn’t really engage our emotions, or to be more precise, it doesn’t trigger any of our usual emotional responses. Instead, it pulls us into its own skewed emotional universe and holds us captive as we watch its fireworks of distorted passion explode and dissolve before our stunned eyes. We go willingly, we submit transfixed, and only when we return do we dare draw a breath. “That was one hell of a show,” Plainview mockingly salutes Eli after a particularly fiery sermon-as-exorcism. Minus the irony, he might as well have been talking about the film that showcases them both.



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