Monday, February 12, 2018

There Will Be Blood


Director Paul Thomas Anderson on the set with actor Daniel Day-Lewis (left)


THERE WILL BE BLOOD              A                    
USA   (158 mi)  2007  ‘Scope  d:  Paul Thomas Anderson

A big, sprawling epic movie that works as a treatise on capitalism and ambition, on the compulsive drive to make money, where eventually greed becomes the singular driving force, there’s an emotional disconnection from this film that remains hard to describe, that may be due to a screen full of despicable characters, but there’s a palpable force pushing us away from them throughout this film, perhaps the feeling is one of inherent dislike and distrust.  These are not characters we can easily put our arms around and embrace.  Like John Wayne’s crude frontiersman Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS (1956), this is as raw and ugly a portrait of the personification of evil as American filmgoers have seen for quite some time, an example of one of the seven deadly sins exhibited through rapacious land and money-grabbing.  Similar to Terrence Malick changing the overall tone of James Jones’s popular war novel The Thin Red Line, actually rewriting the entire dialogue to become an ensemble piece of interior voices, Anderson remains faithful to the first half of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil, a cautionary capitalist warning about the perils of greed published just before the historic stock market crash, but invents a new second half, avoiding any overt political reference while matching an overwhelmingly political tone from the original book  to reflect the amoralism of the Bush years, the idea of wealth being the power shield behind which unmentionable crimes are committed.  Anderson’s film is simply a dramatic recreation of what’s already happened before our very eyes on the world stage. 

While the film defies categorization by writing an epic, near 3-hour film without a single likeable character, there are other major artistic contributions, as it’s beautifully shot in ‘Scope by Robert Elswit, capturing the stark emptiness of the endless Texas landscapes near Marfa, the identical location of GIANT (1956), also featuring a dazzlingly inventive soundtrack from Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood, much of which has a pulsating rhythmic drive of unsettled psychological anxiety.  From the outset, Daniel Day-Lewis seems to have forged a pact with what lies underground, a Mephistophelian deal with the devil where he will pay any terrible price in order to take freely whatever he wants from beneath the earth.  Like a grizzled prospector from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), the film opens with a man working alone in a darkened mine, chipping away at what he hopes will be silver.  After a dynamite blast reveals his treasure, he slips on a fragile wooden step and falls down into the shaft, breaking his leg.  He’s fortunate to get away so easily, as he crawls into town and stakes his claim.  Barely noticeable, what’s interesting here is that for the first 15 minutes or so, the story has been advanced without a single word being spoken.  Set during a time period of 1898 to 1927, this film is set to coincide with the era of silent films, so the beginning is an interesting homage to the period, while also reflecting a monetary and industrial shift from mining silver to crude oil, which becomes the new gold standard out West.  When Daniel Day-Lewis finally opens his mouth and introduces himself, one can’t help but think of Mick Jagger’s words to “Sympathy for the Devil”:

Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.
I’ve been around for long, long years I’ve stolen many a man’s soul and faith.
I was around when Jesus Christ had His moments of doubt and pain.
I made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate.
Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name, but what’s puzzling you,
is the nature of my game.

Day-Lewis may as well be a similar charlatan, ingratiatingly introducing himself as an oil man and a family man, a man that can be trusted, but he’s a snake oil salesman introducing himself as Daniel Plainview, a name that has a multitude of metaphoric ramifications—all of them misleading, but the most interesting is the name of Daniel, taken from the book in the Old Testament which means “Judged by God.”  At his side is a young boy he calls his son, H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier) but he’s simply a child who’s father died in a mining accident that Plainview decided to raise as his own —another falsehood.  Yet initially, there’s a good deal of sympathy for this Plainview character, as he’s obviously worked hard and sacrificed in order to put himself in a position where he can stand in front of a community of dirt poor California farmers and ask for the oil rights to their land, expecting to get it, and he does.  He comes off as a sound businessman whose shrewdness is being in the right place at the right time.  Yet he’s still floundering, an oilman who’s used to as many disappointments as successes, who understands perfectly well how a calculated risk can be exploited by others for profit.  Then Paul Dano introduces himself as Paul, the name of one of the Apostles, the only one who never met Jesus, yet he was the one who witnessed the vision of His resurrection, so perhaps wields greater influence in Christian theology.  For a small finder’s fee of $500 dollars, Paul introduces Daniel to the area just outside his father’s barren goat farm where oil is literally spilling out onto the land.  What happens next is history.  Daniel Plainview becomes a very rich man.  By 1910, the state of California produced 70% of the world’s oil.  Times have changed, but California continues to reflect the immense gulf depicted in John Steinbeck novels between the poorest workers who continue to toil for some of the richest business operators in the world. 

Paul Dano has a dual role, as he also plays Eli, a name that means “the highest” in Yiddish, which is a stunning eye-opener, as he is the identical twin brother of Paul, a young man who has the calling, who weasels a deal out of Plainview to build him a church, with the promise of more money to follow.  Eli wishes to bless his oil wells so that neighbors might associate him with the prominent signs of economic revitalization, but is rudely shunned by Plainview, who comes to one of his services which is threadbare country fundamentalism forecasting the doom of Revelations, where he witnesses a religious exorcism, calling it “one hell of a show.”  But unfortunate accidents seem to go hand in hand with success, accidents that Eli preaches are the wrath of God, believing they could have been prevented if more of the workers came to receive his services instead of spending their spare time drinking and carousing.  This clearly gets under Plainview’s craw, as he wants nothing standing in the way of his workers and his business operations.  He bullies and intimidates Eli, whose sin seems to be that he is as conniving and unscrupulous as Plainview himself, a doppelganger, perhaps a mirror image of himself working a different angle.  This film reveals some of the accidents that interrupt the road to progress, each a grotesque horror story in their own right.  One of the most visually explosive scenes in the film, one with Revelations apocalyptic proportions is an uncontrolled oil well that catches on fire, where the initial blast is so violent that H.W. is thrown off his feet and permanently loses his hearing, which is also one of the pivotal scenes in the film, as all Plainview seems to care about is the oil under the ground, chortling in his own joy, completely immune to the consequences of mishaps as he gleefully sends in dynamiters, where only the force of yet another explosion will cap the well.  

Plainview ruthlessly sends his son away in an angry act of deceit, believing his disability is unacceptable out in the open plains where he refuses to become a laughing stock or allow others to exploit his son’s condition as a sign of weakness.  In time, Plainview builds an empire, but his eccentricities become more apparent, especially in a scene where he stands down a rival’s business proposition with a merciless threat to cut his competitor’s throat, another apt metaphor.  When a man professing to be his long lost brother arrives on the scene, Plainview is obviously distrustful and openly suspicious, but he curiously opens up to this man revealing his most intimate thoughts: “There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.  I want no one else to succeed.  I hate most people.”  This moment is beyond strange or socially awkward, the magnitude of this man’s contempt borders on megalomania to the point of sheer lawlessness.  The wealthier he becomes, the more his humanity is sucked right out of him, becoming an alcoholic recluse retreating into the isolation of his wealth, a fortress protecting him from the world outside that matters little to him or not at all, filled with what he repugnantly calls “these people.” 

Anderson titillates the audience throughout with this feeling of enormity, this epic feel that something big is happening, which is intentionally meant to offset the director’s intent to focus more and more on the internalized dynamic of the Plainview character, continually making the film smaller and smaller as the character grows more and more despicable.  Daniel Day-Lewis saves his best for last, as by the end, he is an abomination, as merciless a creature as ever walked the face of the earth, a hideous mutation of THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) who thinks money gives him the right to be above the law, that the rest of the world can go to hell, that he can do anything to anyone for any reason that pleases him.  The final scene is very much in the Stanley Kubrick manner, as all bets are off, Day-Lewis is finally free of any and all restraint, and he turns into Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING (1980), only much much worse, as he’s a rich and powerful man, so he can get away with anything.  With drool literally spilling from his mouth, man regresses to the Stone Age where once he crosses the line of lawlessness and criminality and gets away with it, what’s to stop him from developing an unquenchable thirst for blood and power?  The final sequence only punctuates what Plainview got away with earlier.  The game is over.  The deal with the devil is done.  Still chortling, his earthly soul has been completely snatched away from him at last, leaving him a staggering fortune, but also soulless and alone.  Unlike Magnolia (1999), there are no emotionally transcendent revelations where the film simply soars into a previously unexplored stratosphere.  Instead, this is a more traditionally grounded, classically made film featuring a gigantic bravura performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, literally one for the ages, as powerful a performance as many of us will likely see in our lifetimes, featuring a horrifying descent into abject amoralism, an uncompromising, startlingly bleak reflection of our times.   

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