Saturday, February 09, 2008

Review - There Will Be Blood

From the four features he had directed to date, we already knew that Paul Thomas Anderson was a filmmaker with a rare talent, but I doubt anyone expected him to produce a film like There Will Be Blood. Actually, I doubt we could have foreseen a film like this coming from any of the directors currently working in American cinema. Anderson has always displayed a confidence and ambition beyond most of his contemporaries, but this is something else entirely; a devastatingly brilliant turn-of-the-century epic which is a world away from the eccentric, LA-set ensemble dramas with which he made his name, or his wilfully idiosyncratic last film, 2002's Punch-Drunk Love. While I was watching There Will Be Blood unfold in front of me – my mouth agape, my eyes widening in disbelief – I couldn't help bringing to mind the work of directors such as Kubrick, Altman, Malick, Leone, Cimino, Ford and Welles. But while many young directors seem happy to reference the past masters without bringing anything fresh to the table, Anderson takes these influences on board and fuses them with his own deeply personal vision, creating something that is uniquely his. Now he has this masterpiece under his belt, it may be time to start mentioning the name of Paul Thomas Anderson alongside that pantheon of greats.

There Will Be Blood – freely adapted by Anderson from Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! – defies audience expectations from the start, opening with an haunting, dialogue-free 15-minute sequence in which we watch oil prospector Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) foraging for silver at the bottom of a deep mine. It is 1898, and he is working alone; and all we can hear during this stretch of film is the sound of Plainview's breath, the sound of his pickaxe striking rock, and the eerie, dissonant chords of Johnny Greenwood's music. As Plainview climbs a makeshift ladder down into the mine, a rung breaks, sending him crashing to the bottom of the pit and breaking his leg. He gasps and moans in the darkness, but he has found the silver he is looking for, and with almost superhuman strength and determination, he drags himself out of the hole, and slowly pulls his broken body towards the town where he can stake his claim.

That kind of single-mindedness will stand Plainview in good stead as he expands his business over the following decade. After a brief chapter set in 1902 – in which we once again experience the ever-present danger of death and injury this work entailed – the main thrust of
There Will Be Blood's narrative begins in 1911, when Plainview is now earning good money from oil and looking for new territories to exploit. He is approached by a mysterious young stranger named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), who alerts him to the oil lying under his family's ranch in Little Boston, California, and Plainview follows this lead, arriving at the Sunday ranch with his adopted son HW (Dillon Freasier) in tow. HW, whom Daniel took as his own following the death of the boy's father in a drilling mishap, is important to the oilman's presentation of himself as a family man, an image he offers to local farmers when persuading them to sign away their land. Daniel buys the rights to the Sunday ranch, and his team starts digging, but a festering resentment begins to develop between him and Eli Sunday (Dano again), a fervent young preacher who wants to extract as much money as possible from Plainview to revitalise his small church. The church lies across from the enormous oil derrick Plainview's men construct – two temples standing as monuments to different gods.

Many viewers will undoubtedly look at the central themes of
There Will Be Blood – religion, capitalism and the pursuit of oil – and be keen to draw some contemporary resonance from the picture, but I don't think any kind of straightforward political allegory is Anderson's prime intention. As in all of his previous films, There Will Be Blood is largely interested in exploring the notion of family, and testing the ties that bind. Daniel Plainview is a Godless, sexless and frequently drunken character driven by his lust for wealth and power, and our only glimpses of his humanity come through his relationship with his de facto son and the long-lost brother (Kevin J O'Connor) who suddenly appears after Daniel's success makes the headlines. As these bonds eventually weaken and snap, Daniel closes himself off against the world, becoming a monstrous figure filled with hatred. "I look at people and I see nothing worth liking", he admits, "I want to make enough money to get away from everyone"; and he ultimately achieves that dubious goal, secluding himself in a grand, empty mansion, bitter and alone.

As Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis is in practically every single scene of this 158-minute film, and his performance burns with a ferocity that is astonishing to behold. Anderson is intentionally sketchy on Plainview's background, so our understanding of the man comes primarily through Day-Lewis' performance; an act of total, obsessive immersion in which every gesture and detail is telling. In a way, one is reminded of the actor's Bill the Butcher from
Gangs of New York, but this embodiment feels lived-in and complete in a way that one didn't and – crucially – Anderson doesn't allow the rest of the picture to be lopsided by the titanic nature of this central turn. Paul Dano proves to be a surprisingly effective adversary for Day-Lewis, his beatific appearance occasionally disrupted by electrifying eruptions of religious hysteria. One of my favourite scenes in the picture sees both of these actors going head-to-head, as Plainview undergoes a forced onstage baptism and Eli delights in this opportunity to humiliate his foe. The scene is funny at first, but the tone gradually shifts, and Daniel's repeated cries of "I've abandoned my boy!" manage to pierce the heart. As Daniel says to Eli, "It was a hell of a goddamn show".

In any film that would be a standout sequence, but in
There Will Be Blood there are dozens of scenes which left me slack-jawed in amazement. Anderson just keeps topping himself, from the sheer audacity of his 2001-like opening reel to the extraordinary set-piece – one of the most exhilarating slices of filmmaking I've ever seen – in which an explosive discovery of oil at Plainview's derrick coincides with a tragic accident involving HW. The sequence builds to a dizzying pitch that pinned me to my seat, the experience intensified by the thrusting, jagged edges of Johnny Greenwood's magnificent score, and it ends on the touching image of Daniel cradling his injured son, both of them covered in oil. That's what sets Paul Thomas Anderson apart from the other directors of his generation; he is a born filmmaker who is constantly going for broke, but first and foremost he is a director who is completely engaged with the emotions of his story. There Will Be Blood is technically flawless (Robert Elswit's cinematography is superb) and stunningly detailed, but unlike some epics it really manages to hit the viewer square in the guts.

And then there's that climax, a sudden gearshift which may well prove to be as divisive as
Magnolia's plague of frogs. The film's final scenes take place in 1927, with a bitter and booze-sodden Daniel Plainview stalking the halls of his empty home, and he is visited by two figures from the past – his grown-up son (Russell Harvard) and Eli Sunday, the preacher having fallen on hard times. In these confrontations, the tension and violence which has been simmering for the preceding two hours suddenly gushes to the surface like a geyser, finally making good on the promise of the title. Some of the exchanges between Daniel and Eli are darkly comic, and Day-Lewis' theatrical delivery of his dialogue walks the borderline of camp excess ("I. Drink. Your. Milkshake – sluurrrpp – I drink it up!"); but it is utterly riveting to watch, and this kind of insanity is really the only way Anderson could have brought his enthralling story to a suitable close. The astonishing climax reaffirms There Will Be Blood's status as a completely unique vision, a film whose ambition and execution dwarfs 90% of what American cinema has produced in the past decade. It is an intimate character study painted on a massive canvas, and I can't wait to experience its hurricane force once again; to absorb more of its mesmerising sights and sounds, and to drill down even further into the inky blackness of Daniel Plainview's soul.