Friday, January 18, 2008

There Will Be Blood

There will be blood and madness...

This is a movie without sympathy. One without pity. It features a man who is a Howard Hughes without a conscience, a Citizen Kane dipped in crude, without the concept of regret. It is a movie that is complex in its simplicity, fixed into a rigid frame as the ultimate portrait of greed and madness. And it is either in spite of or because of all of these things that Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" is a great film.

The year is 1898. Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis) starts with little, in both the means and the words department, as he slogs away beneath the desolate, barren Texas landscapes foraging silver in the hopes of building a fortune. He's not the enthusiastic prospector with naive optimism glinting in his eyes. He is silent and dogged in his determination. He breaks his leg and claws his way out of the desert to cash in his claim. When he eventually strikes oil, he doesn't even register surprise, but instead steps comfortably up to a future of immense wealth and power, almost as if he were entitled to it. He even inherits the baby of a fallen worker and raises him as his own son, using the child as a prop to give an innocent face to his drilling operation, swaying landholders to sell him leases to drill on their property by saying that he's a simple family man. The ploy works.

Plainview's fate turns in a new direction when he's approached by a young man named Paul Sunday, who for a price gives him the location of a vast ocean of oil. It's beneath the Sunday family ranch. Plainview visits the ranch and before long installs himself and his derricks in the town of Little Boston, where the citizens are under the sway of Plainview's vision of shared wealth and prosperity, as well as that of the Sunday family's other son Eli (Paul Dano) who also appears to be the identical twin of Paul. Of course it's hard to tell whether this is actually the case because we never see the two brother's together. But Eli is a religious zealot who runs a small church of the fire and brimstone variety, and he quickly becomes the oil man's nemesis.

Plainview makes a lot of promises to the people of Little Boston, none of which he follows through on. It becomes quite clear that he is not a man who can be trusted. Much later in the film when he meets a man who claims to be his half-brother, he confides in him that he hates everyone, and reveals what we suspected all along: a complete dearth of humanity spiraling dangerously to a place of madness.

Daniel Day-Lewis continues to be the most captivating actor on the screen today, disappearing into his roles with such convincing ease that even in the scenes where there is no dialog (the first fifteen minutes are completely devoid of it), he manages to hold the audience in thrall. This is a role that is certain to garner him a very well-deserved Oscar. The narrative of "There Will Be Blood" is signature Paul Thomas Anderson in that it's long. Quite, actually. Also true to PTA's work, it is not boring. While there were perhaps a few elements of the third act that could have used a tightening of the screws, and there was not a sense even in the last minutes that the film was winding down (which gave it just the smallest smidge of tediousness), it is held in check by our wide-eyed fascination, watching Plainview devolve into an older, wealthy recluse, wandering through the empty halls of his mansion shooting his possessions and gulping an endless supply of whiskey. The ending is by all turns amusing, sad, insane, and abrupt. It is also appropriate for this character, who really deserved no better fate and actually got his wish--to become rich enough to separate himself from everyone.

This is a film that flourishes in its ability to escape convention and manages to do it with great style and taste. There is no love interest. There is no search for redemption or betterment. In its drab colorscape, it exhibits a very limited spectrum of human emotion, focusing on its unsavory underbelly. We are taken in by Plainview's self-assured charisma, and even as he reveals himself to be something of a monster, he's already gotten his hooks sunken into us and we can't look away.

Gouda's Final Grade -- A+

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