Tuesday, January 15, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Here in America there is no difference between a man and his economic fate. A man is made by his assts, income, position and prospects. He learns what he is through the vicissitudes of his economic existence within capitalism. He knows nothing else.

Theodor Adorno, as quoted by Nicole Brenez

Paul Thomas Anderson’s films are largely all-or-nothing propositions – big, bold statements full of unapologetic sentiment, messy emotions, bravura technique, and enough cinematic quotations to put Tarantino to shame. Hard Eight, his first feature, is his most modest endeavor, a tight little neo-noir with a stunner of an ending. It remains his most generically satisfying film. Boogie Nights and Magnolia introduce Altman-esque mosaics and Scorsese derived tracking shots, along with narrative tangents that lean towards the inexplicable (raining frogs, anyone?). Punch Drunk Love took one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars and revealed the violent neurosis and naiveté behind Adam Sandler’s constructed persona of man-child incarnate. There Will Be Blood introduces something new, while paring away Anderson’s own neurotic naiveté – a big, bold social statement via Kubrikian misanthropy. In different ways, it is as messy and sprawling a film as Magnolia. It’s also the most interesting and aesthetically aggressive American film of the year.
The film opens with a vast, barren landscape. The strings of Johnny Greenwood’s atonal, high pitched score immediately begin to screech (indeed, the mixture of avante-classical music, ala 2001, is the films first and most obvious debt to the master). Cut to a dark pit - a single silhouetted figure swings a pick axe, sparks darting through the darkness. Such is our introduction to Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), and Anderson has, essentially, already told us all we need to know about Plainviews’ character. Determined, isolated, gritty, not in harmony with his surroundings (the aggressive score), or, perhaps, in perfect harmony with his surroundings (jagged, rocky, deserted terrain, where nothing grows). I’m almost immediately reminded of Dostoevsky’s “Noted From Underground”, and the novellas opening line might be a perfectly succinct description of Daniel Plainview – “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” Indeed, much like Dostoevsky’s underground man, Plainview stands defiantly outside of society, ultimately to his detriment, while simultaneously reflecting that society’s worst tendencies.
Rather than risk the tedium of a plot synopsis, a recounting of the films first section (almost entirely wordless) tells us a lot about Plainview – climbing from his silver pit, he falls, breaking his leg but dislodging a piece of silver at the same time (in an amazing bit of method derived madness, Day-Lewis carries a limp for the remainder of the film). He hefts himself up a makeshift ladder with one leg, then begins dragging himself across the ground. We cut to a close up of a ledger, which Plainview signs, indicating the value of his silver. Plainview relaxes on the floor, smiling, his leg in a splint and a rifle by his side. Cut to a few years later, as Plainview digs for crude oil. While in a pit, a plank falls and crushes the man next to him. Plainview is next seen pouring whiskey into the bottle of the dead man’s infant child. The child is crying, ignoring the bottle. Reluctantly (as a last recourse?), Plainview picks up the child, bouncing it on his knee. We get, in quick succession, glimpses of a violent man (his gun lays next to him), a desperate, greedy, but determined man (he seems to feel little pain, at least when he has something of value to sell), a man of (limited?) conscience (he attends to his dead worker’s child), but also callous disregard and indifference (he only cradles the child after trying to sedate it with booze). In Anderson’s conception, as with Day-Lewis’ performance, Plainview represents the American ideal, along with its dark flipside; a “can-do attitude”, along with “stick-to-itiveness”, the notion of “making something of oneself”, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” and “never asking for a handout”; capitalism plus rugged individualism would seem to foster a conservative notion of social Darwinism, along with a strong strand of anti-humanism.
Plainview will eventually cross paths with Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), an aspiring pastor who wants Plainview’s oil interests on his family’s property to pay for his congregation’s new church. The notion of religion versus capitalism is nothing new, and when Sunday turns out to be as devious, spiteful, and greedy as Plainview, we aren’t particularly surprised. Indeed, the didacticism is almost a turn off, an obvious indictment of hypocritical priests and tycoons who care nothing for the people they exploit – and yet, it works. It works, in no small part, due to Anderson’s matured visual sensibility. His long tracking shots now follow the horizon line, or train tracks, aligning itself with its constructed environment. Anderson frames and blocks his characters in fascinating ways, staging even the occasional tableau framing and letting character movement, as opposed to camera movement, dictate the meaning of a scene. He films several conversations in medium/close up shots, only to shift the camera or a character to reveal someone else in the room who we could not tell was there before. It’s a beautiful visual correlation to the idea that these people can never trust who they are speaking to, nor are they ever aware of who knows exactly what, or what they are willing to admit. The world of the oil prospector is cut throat, and Anderson’s camera constantly keeps us off guard. And while he is certainly capable of filming a beautiful landscape from a distance, it is usually a landscape infused with some kind of potential danger or psychological terror. In one scene, Eli Sunday walks through a field, searching for Plainview. Sunday approaches a giant oil pit, and while walking around its edges, we see the clouds reflected in its shimmering surface. But just as we register the beauty and compositional acumen of the moment, Plainview violently erupts on Sunday, dragging him into the oil pit and beating him mercilessly. Even more than the metaphorical connotation (that they fight in an oil pit is pretty obvious), the re-contextualization of the space from serenely picturesque to a moment of conflict is what fuels the scene.
Not enough can be said about the performances in this film. Indeed, as of this evening, Daniel Day-Lewis has just won a Golden Globe and is on the short list for an (almost) guaranteed Oscar nomination. He is all bluster and brio, fierce and without remorse. But, unlike his Bill the Butcher character in Gangs of New York, Plainview is also allowed quiet, introspective moments. Indeed, it is these scenes of determined work that his character comes into focus - unrelentingly consumed in his acquisition of wealth, power, and especially control; I can think of no other film outside of Michael Mann’s filmography that just shows men at work, the relish in doing a job and perfecting a craft, being the best. And while the film seems in constant danger of spilling over completely into allegory, it is this fierce sense of a physical place that keeps it anchored in the real. It would be absurd to deny that there are grand ideas at play in the film, much as it would be absurd to deny that at no time do we leave a legitimate physical realm inhabited by characters of depth and individuality. Having said that, the final section of There Will Be Blood wallows a bit too much in Citizen Kane-lite as it fast forwards to a broken down, crazy, embittered man, left alone with his own (lack of?) thoughts, drunk and surrounded by a home-as-testament-to-ones-own-greatness. These surrounding empty spaces of a grand home emphasize an opaque psychological/physical space, an empty man left with everything and nothing. As a symbol of absolute power corrupting absolutely, it is shallow but effective. And yet we are left with this performance – every preceding tick, gesture, or look here becomes full fledged monstrousness, a final descent into emotional deprivation as perceived through outlandish overacting. But – it works. Plainview’s final words resonate with multiple meanings: “I’m finished”, said with a slumped gait and an almost relieved, even bored sense of finality. Indeed, the film is over, as well as his conflict with God, as embodied by Eli Sunday, and even his freedom (he’s now killed at least two men). But with nothing left to discover, or buy, or control, he might be referring to his own lust for life.


A. Dowd said...

Pretty spot on assessment.

"And while the film seems in constant danger of spilling over completely into allegory, it is this fierce sense of a physical place that keeps it anchored in the real."

That's a great insight. On first viewing, I found the film to be damn-near TOO allegorical, but the vivid environments and sharpely tuned characterizations ultimately prevent this from happening. On second viewing, Anderson's idiosyncratic stamp becomes more evident-- his might not be the REAL world, per say, but it's a fully realized one.

Anyway, sharp review. Your discussion of the language of cinema-- how Anderson uses it to reinforce character and theme-- is particularly rewarding. WRITE MORE, dammit!

Hanlon said...

"I can think of no other film outside of Michael Mann’s filmography that just shows men at work." Someone hasn't been watching their Communist era milk production documentaries. :)