Tuesday, January 22, 2008

There Will Be Blood

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Although his pipeline does not lead to God, oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) possesses a prophet's gift for promising prosperity that will spring forth from the ground and rain down from the heavens. Upon finding his salvation at the bottom of a mine, a prospecting Daniel drags himself out of the earth and across the inhospitable landscape to follow his calling and earn his fortune. He may proclaim himself a family man and carry himself with religious conviction--not to be confused with religious belief--but make no mistake, Daniel worships mammon and will sacrifice anything for it.

Daniel's initial discovery in THERE WILL BE BLOOD pays off nicely. Within a few years he is running a successful operation, but real opportunity comes knocking when Daniel is offered a tip on some property where oil is believed to be plentiful and the owner is liable to sell the farm for a cheap price.

Sensing a big strike, Daniel and his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) set out for the rural Little Boston. He has no difficulty persuading the Sunday family to sell him their ranch. The main concession he must make is to give financial assistance to a church that Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) wishes to build and lead. Before long Daniel gobbles up drilling rights in most of this rocky California desert land and appears well on his way to becoming filthy rich.

Beginning in a silver mine in 1898 and concluding in a lavish basement in 1927, THERE WILL BE BLOOD tracks the thirty-year descent of a man pursuing wealth at all costs. Day-Lewis' performance is one for the ages. Without a doubt, the ferocity he applies to this hateful man is responsible for much of his acting's power. Daniel savors his misanthropy and competitiveness like a lion feasting on a gazelle.

Electrifying as his monstrous moments are, Daniel Plainview isn't all bluster and scenery-chewing. Observe him as he sits back to size up everyone else, as he moves the focus from himself and onto those wishing to negotiate. He could sell water to a drowning man, but his skill is rooted in shrewdness in reading people and spotting their weaknesses rather than just talking a good game.

The ultimate scene in Day-Lewis' staggering performance comes when Daniel goes through the motions of pleading for Christ's forgiveness. He must put on a show so he can purchase a desperately needed slice of land. There's definitely a bemused quality in how he professes his desire to receive the blood and be cleansed. Yet there are glimpses of the vulnerability that he otherwise never allows to be visible. Daniel may be acting for the congregation, but the brilliance of this scene is how Day-Lewis slips in flashes of the character's acknowledgement that he knows he has not been a good father. It's devastating to witness and devastating for Daniel to feel. The rare soft cell he may have still had will turn hard from this point on.

Biblical in scope, THERE WILL BE BLOOD can be viewed as an etiological tale of contemporary corporate greed and the danger to organized religion when intermingling with capitalism, but the film is more compelling in how it connects to the past. The derrick functions as a temple near which the worker's tents are assembled and where sacrifices are given in the lives of the men killed on the job. So too does Daniel present H.W. as an offering. Never one to pass up exploring the fragile state of father-son relationships, writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson couldn't make it clearer what Daniel values when he abandons H.W. in his greatest time of need to bask in the eruption of oil and fire that rages like the spitting of an unholy beast in the bowels of hell.

On a formal level THERE WILL BE BLOOD is an astounding accomplishment. Cinematographer Robert Elswit finds beauty in the harsh panoramas and the blackness that emanates from Daniel. (The oilman's fireside declaration of misanthropy is devilishly lit.) Jack Fisk's detailed production design makes the era come alive so that the smell and taste of the air are tangible. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's dissonant score scrapes and swells like Daniel's distaste for mankind.

Anderson, of course, brings it all together with his superb direction and a screenplay he adapted from Upton Sinclair's OIL! The first reel of THERE WILL BE BLOOD is nearly wordless, a bold choice that Anderson uses as a turn-of-the-century update to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY'S Dawn of Man sequence. He references other films--CHINATOWN and CITIZEN KANE most notably--yet this too is a way of showing the timelessness of the examined themes. THERE WILL BE BLOOD is a spectacular achievement that, at this early date, seems worthy to be mentioned alongside cinema's avowed masterpieces.

Grade: A+

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