Friday, January 4, 2008

Blood, oil and the brutality of madness

Summary: It may confound or astonish you. Either way, director Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" should get under your skin. Like many great filmmakers, Anderson has created his own world, full of iconic characters and bold statements. Built around a towering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, the movie explores the underside of American myths about ambition and self-made men. It is at once a work of uncompromising vision and brutal assertion. Anderson's self-contained epic occupies its own world and dares you not to believe in it.

Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those actors who can't seem to do anything half way. As Daniel Plainview, a silver prospector turned oil man, Day-Lewis gives Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" a frightening and corrupted soul. Day-Lewis creates a character who runs through the movie like an artery hardened by greed. Like the late director and sometime actor John Huston, Day-Lewis speaks in a strangely measured way. As Plainview, he seems never to have met a syllable he won't pronounce.

Plainview isn't a representative of the capitalist order; he is the capitalist order, and Anderson ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia" and "Punch Drunk Love") allows the movie to spring from Plainview's unforgiving assessment of humanity. Plainview makes his money buying oil-rich lands from naive farmers and ranchers, mostly in a California town called Little Boston. He promises meager benefits to his "victims" and then brings in drills to do a vampiric number on the earth. He's an exploiter with an undisguised distaste for people.

The movie sets up a conflict that probably needs to be read as symbolic. In one corner, we have Lewis' fierce capitalism. In the other, we find religious hypocrisy, represented by an ambitious preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). There are two major scenes involving instances of abject humiliation, one in which Sunday brings Plainview to his knees and the other -- the final scene -- in which Plainview exacts his brutal revenge. Day-Lewis' performance exudes arrogance and contempt, much of it aimed at what he sees as Sunday's faux spirituality. But Plainview isn't a social critic disguised as a predator; he's an unapologetic greed machine who rarely makes a move that isn't self-serving.

Early on, Plainview acquires (and when you see the movie, you'll understand why I chose that word) a son and heir. He takes charge of a toddler who's in the care of one of his workers. When the man is killed; Plainview assumes responsibility for the boy. Later, the boy (Dillon Freasier) accompanies Plainview on his land-buying expeditions. He's less a son than an apprentice to the devil. Plainview isn't anyone's idea of a great father.

Blood ties don't mean much to Plainview either. We learn something about this when a stranger (Kevin J. O'Connor) appears, claiming to be Plainview's half-brother. This relationship comes closest to bestowing a bit of humanity on Plainview. It's not giving away much to tell you that Plainview pushes away anything that threatens to make him vulnerable -- and that includes the past. In the movie's speechless opening sequence, a filthy Plainview emerges from the darkness of a mine; it's as if the dirt has given birth to him.

Anderson adapted his movie from Sinclair Lewis' 1927 novel "Oil." But "There Will Be Blood" seems less an adaptation than a work that stands on Lewis' shoulders in much the same way as the movie stands on Day-Lewis' shoulders. Day-Lewis makes you believe that Plainview is smarter than everyone he encounters, as well as more ruthless. By the end of the movie, Plainview has revealed the true extent of his madness, which runs as deep as any well he's ever dug.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit creates images that match the strength of Day-Lewis' performance. "There Will Be Blood" looks like it's composed of out-takes from the Bible. And its early scenes -- men drilling for oil -- offer a groaning cacophony of wheels, cranks and pulleys as Plainview mounts his crude assault on the earth.

Perhaps to add an extra touch of strangeness, "There Will Be Blood" has been brilliantly scored by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. Greenwood's music pervades the movie like a swirling, agitated fog. Sometimes, it seems more like sound sculpture than actual music, but it has a way of augmenting the near perpetual sense of unease Anderson creates. This is one time when consciousness of a movie's musical score may be a virtue.

If you're not the sort of moviegoer who admires bold statement, you may find "There Will Be Blood" a bit overcooked, particularly at the end. Yet as I watched the movie's bizarre conclusion I thought of something that political commentator Michael Kinsley once said -- albeit in an entirely different context. Sometimes, those who don't go too far run the risk of not going far enough. No one will accuse Anderson of such timidity.

No comments: