Thursday, February 21, 2008


When There Will Be Blood is over, on first reflection, it feels as if it's said nothing. The film has no immediately apparent over-arching thesis that people (myself included) love to discuss at breakfast tables or on internet forums, nor does it seem like a movie which would yield treasures after applying the regular subtextual analysis that often makes sense of difficult films. Over time, it retains this impenetrability, but it ceases to matter so much. The movie is so good doing what it does, it's enough that it simply is. And, anyway, as the experience of watching this great work dissolves into memory, it becomes clear that what makes it impenetrable is not that it is saying nothing, but that it is saying so much.

The film tracks the ascension of misanthropic, super-capitalist Daniel Plainview from silver miner to hyper-wealthy oil tycoon in late 19th and early 20th century America. The main thrust of the movie's plot details how Plainview harvests the oil underneath a rustic, undeveloped California town. As the oil company infastructure moves in, a conflict brews between Plainview and Eli, the local minister who wishes to harness some of Daniel's wealth and power for his fledgling church. Through this, the film manages to explore themes of family (particularly focusing on brothers, fathers, and sons), privacy, self-deception, loyalty, greed, wealth, poverty, language, life, death, religion, and capitalism. That it manages to touch on all of these themes without feeling overwhelmed in the slightest is one of its many great achievements. The writing is as sharp, intimate, and multi-textured as any great novel.

With the film's main conflict, one might expect it to become arch or mythic--Capitialism versus Christianity, get yer tickets now!--like something found in, say, a Sergio Leone film. In this way, There Will Be Blood certainly has its moments, but it's more interested in the characters than the competing philosophies. Over and over again, Anderson teases the line of allegory, but refuses to define his two main players solely by their beliefs. These are people, not caricatures, and, as they both seethe and roil with the anger they feel for the other, they, realistically, supress their feelings and go on with their business. It's easy to spot that their business is the same--themselves--but Anderson's too clever to simply make some glib point about the commonalities between Capitalism and Christianity and think that's a movie-worthy point to hang his film on. No, he's found something much more captivating in Plainview himself.

Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis's rendition of Daniel Plainview is a stunning and, I would say, wholly new creation. At times, he's some sort-of capitalist, Frankenstein monster, a simulacrum of humanity cobbled together from competition and greed. But the portrayal goes deeper. He has an adopted son who he clearly cares for, and the anxiety he feels when his son stands in the way of his financial success makes him endearing. His indifference to the suffering of others inspires rage. But through it all, he knows what he wants and is so unflinchingly determined to get it, that the sheer force of his personality compels an unwavering attention. The movie reflects this, zeroing in on Plainview with the long-take intensity of an interrogator. And, yet, despite the fact that the movie runs for over two and a half hours and Plainview is nearly always onscreen, he remains an enigmatic character, his psychology as foreign as a Martian's. He's presented as a man who fiercely guards his privacy, but it feels like he's hiding himself against us, the audience. Or maybe Anderson's camera is bearing down on him so fervently, that he can't help but retaliate with a dogged insistence that he need not show everything there is to him.[1] Whatever the case, the creation is a terrifying mystery. And remains so.

The movie's conclusion is disorienting--there's a jump of location and many years' time between it and the portion of the film that precedes it. While debate rages over its merit and its meaning, it is undeniably powerful and would be as challenging an ending to a film as any in recent memory if No Country for Old Men hadn't also come out last year. There's a sick and perverse joy in watching the angry, disenfranchised Plainview, who has attained such wealth that he can afford to isolate himself from the rest of society, emerge as a full-blown, alcohol-fuelled monster. In isolation, he reverts to his former self as the rugged, lonely silver miner but absent the goals that drove him to form lasting relationships with other human beings or the physical trials that distracted him from his repressed rage. Daniel Day Lewis, completely unleashed, embodies this rage with a mad performance for the ages. He stomps about, drools, vigorously eats a steak with his hands, and screams his dialogue with the gusto of someone who enjoys feeling righteous indignation more than serenity. If this performance and the final scene seem to lift the movie off of the tracks, it seems better to blame the tracks than this fearless, unhinged moment of cinema.

Throughout, one can feel Anderson as a master at the top of his game. The movie's so assured in every aspect and unfolds with such density of thought, that, critical thought be damned, I couldn't help but fall in love with it. As every moment rolls by, burned into the celluoid with a single-minded ferocity that mirrors the character it's depicting, the intensity is so eminently watchable, so pleasureful to look at, that it's almost nauseating. All of Anderson's work has this energy, this joie de cinema, but it's never felt so fully earned as it does here. In their structure or their execution, his past work pointed, at times, to the past successes of Altman or Scorsese. There Will Be Blood points to only Paul Thomas Anderson and, in doing so, to the future.

Would Make a Good Double Feature With: The Wages of Fear

[1] Note that this is one of those performances that is so good, you start referring to the character as if he was really being filmed as he lived his life.

1 comment:

Q said...

Onto the queu this one will go. Sounds as if it is long but worth every minute.
Thanks. I enjoy reading your critiques.