The Reeler


December 20, 2007

There Will Be Blood

P.T. Anderson's monumental departure from form draws blood

There are only four deaths in There Will Be Blood, but they cause more than enough trouble to justify the title. Death number one comes on one of the first oil derricks built by Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis): one slip in the apparatus, and a worker is impaled, giving Plainview a baby son to claim as his blood. The son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), grows up to witness death number two, which takes place on a much grander drilling platform. That accident doesn't do much more than bode poorly for H.W., squirming impassively in the shadow of his father's pursuit of wealth at all costs. Two more -- progressively ludicrous -- deaths follow.

There Will Be Blood is some kind of masterpiece, I'm just not sure what kind. Beautifully crafted throughout, it's still distinctly a product of writer/director P.T. Anderson -- the idiot savant genius who, when he isn't being brilliant, is being a moron. There Will Be Blood is a two-and-a-half hour epic whose magisterial Western scope can stand comparison to Leone for sheer set-piece grandiosity; it's also a film that takes its title from the Saw franchise. Both are accurate indicators of what's to come: Anderson delivers on his Grand Guignol promise, for better and worse. Rumors abounded that Anderson -- whose equally ambitious Magnolia built to a hysterical frenzy until slumping into meteorological deux ex machina for relief -- had abandoned the juvenile prankster sensibility that made Boogie Nights the longest dirty joke ever told. The rumors were wrong.

Still, There Will Be Blood haunts me in a way that other, more coherent movies of the past year have not. I have seen it twice, mainly to clarify my feelings about the ending; without spoiling it, it's either a camp stroke of genius or the poorest homage ever to De Palma's Scarface. What comes before is bravura filmmaking of the highest order: fluidly jumping from 1898 to 1902 to 1911 and beyond without missing a beat, There Will Be Blood is the thoroughly engrossing story of a bad man. (Unlike the Upton Sinclair source novel Oil!, Anderson has the good sense to leave out ridiculous diversions like the Russian Revolution; for an epic-length movie, it's remarkably pared down in its scope.)

Daniel Plainview is the only compelling presence on the Western front. His voice booms sonorously, whether swindling yokels out of undervalued land for its oil with faux-modesty or announcing, with little doubt, that misanthropy is the only way to view the world: "I don't like most people," he declares, without a trace of doubt. He's a charismatic figure in a void; everyone else speaks in stilted, anachronistic, barely inflected sentences without any contractions. "We will bring dinner," says patriarch Abel Sunday (David Willis) in a typical example of how Plainview's charisma runs riot over all those around him. ("I'm your brother from another mother," announces another character in a moment that pushes self-parody, perhaps intentionally.)

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Abel may not be too bright or interesting (he sells his California land for a song, giving Plainview his ultimate fortune), but his son, Eli (Paul Dano), is the only person in the film who offers a challenge for Daniel. A self-styled messiah -- the lone prophet of the Church of the Third Revelation -- Eli's staunch religiosity annoys the fiercely self-made, secular Daniel, then turns Eli into his ultimate nemesis. Is it a sincere battle of God vs. gold, or is there only room for one disingenuous leader at a time? Day-Lewis's strangled American accent conveys inner tension without even trying; Dano is a different kind of scene stealer, like Tobey Maguire if he could actually act but with bursts of charismatic screaming. Though both are amazing, Dano and Day-Lewis are not just on different sides of the social fence; they can't even get on the same thespian page.

For all of the seemingly straight-forward set pieces -- including an amazing oil fire that's the most impressive of its kind since Werner Herzog's actual burning oil fields in Lessons of Darkness -- Blood can be inscrutable not just in the line it draws between drama and Lynchian parody, but in its intentions; if the ending isn't supposed to be hilarious, audiences may need to be personally informed by Anderson that they're missing the point, and if it is, it's unclear why Anderson sets up a consistent tone for two hours -- stark, grim, and generally hypnotic -- only to blow it up with violent comedy. It's both something to look forward to (albeit with the glee of watching, say, footage of Bette Davis losing it) and completely incongruous. One thing is certain: Anderson, at just the moment when his hallmarks were poised to become mere tics, has changed his game completely. Long tracking shots? Gone. Digital flare? Present -- during moments preceding big revelations, as in the moment before H.W. stumbles on earthquake oil -- but to not nearly the saturating degree it was in Punch-Drunk Love. Profanity (once so excessive that Philip Baker Hall in Magnolia had to apologize, on behalf of his creator, for swearing constantly)? Expunged. Dialogue in general? Seemingly wary of his reputation as a writer of crackling lines, the first reel has none. No Philip Seymour Hoffman or redemptive pop songs either.

But even as Anderson backs away from the trademarks he has eked out over the course of only three films in the last decade, There Will Be Blood feels more than ever like the work of a major talent coming into his own. This movie draws blood.

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