Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood

If the roles that he takes are any indication of Daniel Day Lewis' outlook on life, it is amazing that he has survived for 50 years without blowing his brains out. In Paul Thomas Anderson's latest effort, There Will Be Blood, Lewis plays the role of oil pioneer Daniel Plainview, a joyless man driven by the demon of limitless ambition, and poisoned by contempt for humanity.

Based on the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!, the story follows Plainview's 30 year rise in fortunes from a solitary silver miner to a powerful oil tycoon during the first part of the 20th century. Plainview is a man of singular purpose, determined to build an empire and willing to do whatever is necessary to make it happen.

Daniel Plainview, scheming
Early in the story he mysteriously acquires a son, H. W. (played by child-actor Dillon Feasier), the only human being for whom he displays any affection. (Apart, that is, from a creepy affinity he bears for his future daughter-in-law, a child of some 12 years.) Plainview sees his son as an extension of himself, his gateway to eternity: the boy will inherit the empire that Plainview creates, will extend it into perpetuity.

Pitted against Plainview is old-time revival preacher and faith healer, Eli Sunday (played by Paul Dano), who has the advantage of owning (through his brow-beaten and weak father) a tract of land that Plainview must acquire in order to drill for a sea of oil under the rock-and-sagebrush terrain of California.

As the story progress, Plainview and Sunday, each the mirror image of the other, perform a menacing dance. They recognize immediately how much they are alike in their ambition and in their shared contempt for humanity, and it serves only to feed the hatred that they bear for one another.

The film is an ambitious and complex endeavor. Anderson is clearly a talented filmmaker, as he has proven in previous efforts like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. The film is highly visual: the cinematography conveys the hardscrabble bleakness of the world as viewed by the film's principle characters. The dialog is sparse. Anderson seems to rely more on his actors' body language and facial expressions than on their words. The score adds to the effect: at times menacing, at times dreary, and never, never, never soothing.

But, at times, Anderson seems to break from this paradigm of visual conveyance. In particular, the penultimate scene between Plainview and the full grown H. W. and the final confrontation between Plainview and Eli Sunday are both rendered mainly through the actor's vocal deliveries. A bit of a jarring segue, but perhaps Anderson intended it that way.

Lewis' performance is, as usual, outstanding. His facial expressions are masterful: the sneer he wears as he relates his feelings about humanity, the simmering resentment he conveys in the set of his brow as his would-be brother asks him for money, the terrifying, insane menace of his eyes as he holds a gun to the head of a man he hasn't yet decided to kill. His verbal delivery is reminiscent of the great John Huston, as my friend Andre Danielson pointed out: sonorous, deliberate, and unhurried, but also plain and direct.
Eli Sunday
And Dano's performance is also noteworthy. He plays the sniveling Eli Sunday convincingly. His mockery of his flock hovers just beneath the surface of his frantic, fevered sermons. His passive face is a maddeningly impenetrable mask, obscuring his disdain for the pathetic creatures he sees praying fervently before him.

There are many layers and facets to this film, all of which bear further examination and analysis, and I'm still thinking about the film two days later. Nonetheless, I came away from it vaguely disappointed. It's as if Anderson overreached, bit off more than was necessary.

I give Anderson credit for challenging his audience. There Will Be Blood is subtle and intricate, and not a film to see if one is seeking easy diversion. But it seems overly complex, and offers few answers to the many questions it poses, both practically (who is H.W.'s mother?) and metaphorically (is self-contempt the ultimate price of ambition?).

If the film did not require so much effort, I would venture another look and see what I might glean the second time around. But it is not an uplifting story, by any means. Hence, I'll spare myself the trouble.

I do recommend this film. But it is a qualified recommendation. Make sure you're up to it; it's not a film to watch on a lark.

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