Thursday, October 27, 2011

There Will Be Blood (2007)


written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
starring Daniel Day-Lewis,
Paul Dano, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ciarán Hinds

There Will Be Blood may or may not be the masterpiece that writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson so obviously wanted it to be — the verdict isn't yet in, only four years after its release. But there's some of the poetry of a silent-movie epic in its painterly widescreen tableaux of an American West in its bare-plains infancy, in the film's wordless, ritualistic evocations of what it meant to make one's living from the land, in the way that its chunk of the early years of America's oil industry quietly unfolds like the petals of some rare orchid opening — gradually, wondrously. Call it Abel Gance's Napoleon, maybe, or bits of von Stroheim's Greed compressed then stretched out across the arid California landscape while Jonny Greenwood's atonal Penderecki strings hiss and hum and threaten psychic disintegration à la Kubrick. Daniel Day-Lewis, in the guise of oil magnate Daniel Plainview, likewise recalls an earlier era of cinematic spectacle with his turn-of-the-century Snidely Whiplash-cum-railroad baron look and his crooked gait and his verbal conjuring of director John Huston (think Chinatown) plus any number of Woodrow Wilson-era bigwigs whose voices he studied recordings of in preparation for the role. It's museum-exhibit America given heft, blood, force — a land where men with big dreams and bigger money rushed to the edge of a cliff just to throw it all off and see if it had wings. People called them "crazy" when they failed, "genius" when their gambles took flight and became the mass-produced automobile or modern air travel or the film industry or Big Oil.

The film is rather obvious in its bid to be a Citizen Kane-by-way-of-Giant for our Crash-worthy times, though epic ambition hardly qualifies as a cardinal sin. And it does send Daniel Plainview off on a rather predetermined trip to Crazyville, the reasons for which we're expected to intuit or perhaps just accept as the natural flipside to the whole genius/father-of-an-industry coin. We're told that Daniel's spent years building his hatreds, told of his disdain for humanity. And then, we see the manifestations of that worldview — a pair of murders, the severing of ties with adopted son HW. But there's a missing link in the chain that binds these developments to the earlier Daniel Plainview, the Plainview who earned his fortune by the sweat of his own brow, who brought education and the modern age to backwater citizenry, whose work ethic and insistence on the best for HW after his hearing loss obviously had something to do with the resourceful young tycoon that the kid has become by the end of the film. Plainview kills a drifter posing as his long-lost half-brother but it's not a reaction to any sort of threat the man poses. Is Daniel merely punishing him for having coaxed a glimmer of humanity out of him, for having seduced a man who doesn't like to explain himself into pouring out his coal-black heart? As with Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson's prior effort, the screenplay often feels as though it could have used another run through the typewriter. (Magnolia, on the other hand, could have used about forty pages shaved off.)

But I get it: clearly, Anderson is going for a more suggestive, less on-the-nose style of storytelling — one that sketches out the broadstrokes of life at the dawn of twentieth-century social development (industrialization, the church as the nexus of community, the birth of Jesus-soaked modern politics) while allowing us to fill in the details. More often than not, it works — you're marvelling even when the approach leaves your head full of unanswerable questions. What doesn't work so well is the film's easy assumption of venality and two-bit hucksterism in Eli Sunday, the town's self-appointed young preacher. (Though Paul Dano labors admirably with scraps.) Plainview's practically smirking with postmodern "Religion! What bullshit!" glee from the moment he first hears of Sunday's Church of the Third Revelation, and it's a view that the film does nothing to challenge or offset. What we end up with is an echo of the lopsided face-off between Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher and Leonardo DiCaprio's Amsterdam in Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Eli's nothing more than the paper tiger of Religious Hogwash that Anderson pits against the raging Colossus of Reasonable Agnosticism, and the outcome of said battle is never in doubt; it's forecast from their first meeting.

If there's anything Anderson's filmography has shown us, it's that he doesn't shortchange his characters in the humanity department. "Come on in," his films exhort us with open arms worthy of Jack Horner. "You might be a hopeless misfit or a fuck-up or a small-timer or a dim-bulb or a coked-out porn whore thoroughly ill-equipped to ever gain custody of your kid, but there's no derision in this house, nobody here you can write off or distance yourself from or feel superior to." That was the big, beautiful heart beating away beneath all the Johnny Wadd homages and raining frogs and Scorsese whip-pans and Julianne Moore's bubblegum-pink nipples — obviously, this show-offy whiz-kid had learned something from all those Jonathan Demme films. That was what made him such a matured-soul standout, such a glorious Altmanesque throwback in an era defined by the too-cool-for-school preening of Tarantino and his pop culture-spouting hit men.

How much more powerful would Blood be, though, had it rejected the taint of postmodern hipster antipathy to Christianity in order to examine — truly, seriously examine — the psychological motivation for Eli's God complex? What if Anderson had given Eli just a smidgen of the same blemished humanity he lent to daughter-diddler Jimmy Gator in Magnolia? What if — instead of the Saturday Night Live sketch we get of Eli "casting out" the "evil spirit" of an elderly woman's arthritis — he'd endowed Eli with a genuine gift for speaking to the emotional needs of his congregation, for applying a measure of spiritual unguent to their lives? As hilarious as that arthritis bit is (and I do love it), it's little more than tent-show revival theatrics; easy laughs. You don't come away from it thinking, "Wow, at least Eli really brings something to these people's lives," you snicker along with Plainview and snort, "What a half-ass con-man! What kind of backwoods ignoramuses could take this idiot seriously?" Hell, Ozzy Osbourne's "Miracle Man" or the Jim Bakker parodies that Jim Carrey used to do on In Living Color ("Ah.... haaave... ssssinnned!!") contain about the same level of pathos.

And as far as the congregation is concerned, what is there in these people's lives that makes them so receptive to a figure like Eli and his rather narrow interpretation of salvation? Do they take his claims of communion with the angels at face value? Or do they merely dig past the crust of hokum on the surface to tap into what lies beneath — the reassurance of Old Testament order in an chaotic new world? (For that matter, what about the old lady with arthritis when she finds that her hand is still a gnarled claw? Does she still put her faith in Eli's powers of "healing"?) The Coens or Alexander Payne might occasionally render their common folk a faceless mass of simpletons and call it a day, but I expect a director of Anderson's talents to at least acknowledge that these questions exist, even if he's not terribly interested in the answers.

Of course, a masterpiece needn't be flawless; film history's Greatest of All-Time Pageant is filled with porcelain-skinned, pink-nippled, raven-haired Perfect Tens which, when undressed, reveal the scars of overlength (A Clockwork Orange, The Wild Bunch) or of sticky ideology (Birth of a Nation, Triumph of the Will) or of obvious calculation (virtually any Spielberg) or of individual sequences which, once fresh or shocking, have since rusted gracelessly against the roiling waters of time (too many to mention). None of this matters; the only court in which a film has to stand — the only sagging pair of tits to which a film must tether itself in lifelong matrimony — is the lair of the collective unconscious. And There Will Be Blood at its best is pure waking dream; less a motion picture written, scored and directed than a writhing, wriggling piece of our national character — as preserved in amber by muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, whose 1927 novel Oil! Anderson is partially adapting here. One of the best things that Anderson's learned from his hero Robert Altman (via Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, especially) is how to make a masterpiece that doesn't feel like one, that doesn't act as if it aspires to be one. Accordingly, Blood shakes out as Masterpiece Theater the gloriously rude American way: crazy, pitch-black humor, wild shifts in tone, coal-hearted amusement at man's folly, the out-and-out slapstick of Eli's spirit expulsion bit or the scene in which Eli calls Daniel up before his congregation to give him "the blood" and bitch-slaps him into oblivion as payback for an earlier humiliation.

And then, just when you're not looking, Anderson slips in moments of such sublime, understated beauty, you're afraid to breathe too hard, lest the magic of the moment dissipate into the air like petals from a dandelion. Mind you, I'm not talking "beauty" in the morning-sunset/rolling-meadow way that it's been taught to us, I'm talking the beauty of a fully realized, indefatigably human work of art. Anderson's version of beauty is as fraught with instability and danger as everything else in the film but it's there: in the film's early, wordless sequences of grim-faced workers so caked and painted with dirt — and, later, oil — that they look like refugees from a minstrel troupe while digging away at the earth and peering up occasionally at the blinding sunlight. It's there in the way the film casually acquaints us with the mundane details of early twentieth-century oil mining, in the way that a miner baptizes his baby son with a smudge of black oil across his little forehead, in the way that modern politics dawns in that glimmer in Plainview's eyes as he sees how Eli's vessel-for-the-Holy-Spirit act has the good people of Little Boston so thoroughly seduced.

Day-Lewis made the choice to project to the cheap seats with his Acting here and, yet, the most important things about Daniel Plainview are left for us to understand on that subconscious level where all great thespians reach us. He lets bits of Plainview's humanity dribble through his fingers in fleeting moments when he's content enough or drunk enough to momentarily loosen his grasp, in the way he ensures that little Mary Sunday will never again be beaten by her father for not praying, in the way that he accepts little HW's punches as his due as they're reunited. And when Anderson's sensibility chimes in time with Day-Lewis's impulses, we get chills no speechwriter could put into words: the queasiness of sudden realization when Henry fails to recognize a clue from the past that Daniel keeps feeding him, or the way that that wave of ocean-water-as-realization washes over Daniel and a perfectly timed cut takes us to Daniel in the whorehouse as Henry staggers up and asks for money.

And then, there's Plainview's big moment, which just might be the single best scene in the last ten years of cinema: his whiskey-sodden admission to Henry of the little hatreds that he's built up inside of himself over the years, of his furious sense of competition with others, of the way that he looks at people and sees nothing worth liking. Of course, there's absolutely nothing in his words that hasn't been thought or felt by anyone with any kind of experience with the numbing stupidity of one's fellow humans: the small-mindedness, the petty obsessions, the betrayals of friends and lovers, the endless concessions to unearned vanity, the constant need for attention or validation. Any man who can look around this demented slaughterhouse of a world we live in (thank you, Howard Beale) and not feel at least some degree of revulsion — not at least occasionally want to bash one's fellow man in the cranium with a fucking bowling pin — is a man without a brain, without a soul. If there is a hell in this world, a flaming inferno that can't be escaped or reckoned with or reasoned away, then, clearly: it's other people. And the truth of that invades Plainview's speech — the genuine climax of the film — the way that painful memories and past transgressions have a way of seeping into, and poisoning, even the most mundane moments of one's life.

But it's the cuckoo, black-comedy Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shiningsville of the film's final "I drink your milkshake!" setpiece that properly catapults the whole enterprise into the stratosphere. If, in the real world, unfettered capitalism and Jesus-freaking are perfectly happy to swap spit and pad off to each other's boudoirs in the still of the night in order to suit their individual purposes (see: modern-day politics, Republican variety), Blood's final flourish is still a fairly evocative portrait of the forces warring for our grubby little red-white-and-blue souls. Again, Anderson tips his hand in regard to Eli/organized religion with the ending. But then again, check that title — that's a promise to the audience. And in cinema, if nowhere else in life, promises must be kept.

Altman and Kubrick wisely injected doses of tittage into the mix, but Anderson was just as wise to exclude the flaxen curls and milky bosoms of the fairer sex from his canvas here. There's something muted and dry in Plainview's psychological makeup, something that — like the Vietnam background of Travis Bickle or whether Patrick Bateman was simply imagining all his hacked-to-bits, rat-raped victims — doesn't need to be reduced to something so pedestrian as explanation. Whether or not Plainview's impotent (something Anderson reportedly toyed with in an earlier draft), asexual or simply too monomaniacally driven for common, sloppy human entanglements, it's clear that the only drilling he needs to do is into that fertile woman under his feet. The young American West is his wife, explosions of black gold the only ejaculations he'll ever need; our thoroughly industrialized twenty-first century America his spawn. On that level, at least, his antagonism toward Sunday is properly understood. Who needs all that old-time religion when Plainview is offering the new: the oil that bubbles forth as our blood of the Lamb, Plainview himself as the Jesus who'll sacrifice himself for our social advancement by getting rich beyond his wildest dreams and then dying alone and insane inside his storybook mansion. Naturally, Anderson concurs: Plainview as presented is the only prophet whose teachings we still live by, the only Jesus whose parables make a lick of sense according to our cutthroat modern world.

Audiences require layers for the mass delusion that entertainment represents, though. When the artistic impulse is nestled inside of a mass-market form like the horror film or the gangster genre, audiences more readily accept what the artist is saying about Who We Are, about this brittle paper god of civilization that we've constructed around ourselves. Peckinpah (the Western), John Huston (the Bogart film), Jonathan Demme (the comedy) and Kubrick (the war film, the Stephen King adaptation, the satirical futuristic parable) did it all the time. Sometimes, though, an artist just strips down and lets his sweaty balls flap in the wind. Robert Altman — Anderson's guru — did this by not bothering to sugarcoat his cynicism or his supreme disinterest in conventional storytelling; probably why he was never much of a hit with audiences beyond M*A*S*H (the counterculture war comedy). Anderson's displayed the heart of a Demme, the technique of a Scorsese and, now, what may prove to be the reach of a Kubrick. But his soul belongs to Altman — to whom There Will Be Blood is dedicated.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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