by David Cornelius
Early in “There Will Be Blood,” Daniel Plainview is giving one of his trademark sales pitches, as slick as the oil he drills. The camera slowly, almost absentmindedly, begins to zoom in. And then it drifts over to the left, zooming in even more, its attention turning to Plainview’s young son, who is quietly, dutifully standing behind his father. The camera - and by extension, us - is fascinated by this silent boy. But then the camera changes its mind, and in mid-zoom, it pans back over to the right, to Daniel Plainview, the oil man. He is too large a figure to ignore, no matter what else may temporarily strike our fancy. All attention is due him.This shot lasts a minute, maybe two, and yet it packs more dramatic punch and cinematic expression than most films can provide in their entire running times. “There Will Be Blood” is not only the best film of the year, but it is so far above any other of this year’s films - yes, even the excellent ones - that it arrives with a thunder shock. Paul Thomas Anderson, the director and screenwriter, has reminded us of the meaning of great cinema. This movie is a revelation.
"One of the best films of our lifetime. Drink it up!"
Inspired in part by Upton Sinclair’s novel “Oil!” (the credits claim this is an adaptation, but that’s just barely so; this is more an adaptation of ideas than of plot points), “Blood” is far removed from anything Anderson has given us before; somewhere in the filmmaker’s lengthy absence (he hasn’t released a film since 2002’s “Punch-Drunk Love”) he evolved from a solid director with a flair for the showy into a true master of the craft. “Blood” is a movie so self-assured in its every frame that calling it “ambitious” doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
“Operatic” is perhaps the best word. There is nothing small here. Even the quietest, most personal moments have a larger-than-life quality about them, and at the center of this grand drama is Plainview himself, played with a restrained inner fervor by Daniel Day-Lewis, who powerhouses his way through every scene with a persona that’s John Huston by way of Bill the Butcher.
Plainview is one of movie history’s greatest, most compelling characters, a demon with fire in his belly and hate in his heart. “I see the worst in people,” he says in one scene. These words explain what’s come before. When we first see Plainview, it is 1898, and he is mining for silver. It is a lonely enterprise, which may be why he does it so well. Jumping ahead a few years, we find Plainview now on a quest for oil; this requires others to be around him, yet the film remains oddly quiet (it is a full fourteen minutes before any dialogue is heard), as if underlining his solitude: the labor might be shared, but the benefits are all for one. When the plot gets fully underway in the 1910s, he is using all his tricks to gain wealth and power, and he shows no compassion for those he meets along the way. When a man is killed on the job, Plainview tries to muster the appearance of compassion, while his eyes hint at colder, more selfish thoughts.
Back to his confession. “I’ve built my hatreds up over the years, little by little.” This scene is the only time he lets his guard down enough for us to get to know him; the rest of the time, we only have his chilly stare to guide us, to clue us in as to his deep, dark hatred of humanity. (He laughs after calling them “these… people,” amused at the thought - the truth? - of him being some higher being, raining scorn down on those unworthy of his attention.)
This scene represents the first time since we first meet him that he will lower his defenses. Granted, he trusts others, close business associates like right-hand man Fletcher Hamilton (Ciarán Hinds), but even those he keeps at a distance. And there is his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), whom Plainview is grooming to follow in the family business. Yet he is using his son for his own gain - he brings him along on sales pitches, talks up the idea of family, and we see the oilman playing the game. The kid helps build trust. Then again, Plainview does show a genuine love for the boy, and his spirits are lifted whenever he gets to show him how the business is run.
Still, when a man (Kevin J. O’Connor) arrives and announces himself as Plainview’s half-brother, the oilman finally has someone truly worthy of his confidence. Or does he? Not even now, with the sudden prospect of a greater family and connection to his youth, can he truly let down his guard, let go of the mistrust that has dominated his being.
Indeed, Plainview’s only regrets seem to come in the form of trusts made when they should not have been. When the film jumps ahead to the late 1920s for its third act, we find Daniel Plainview is wealthy beyond measure yet consumed by his personal failures. Comparisons to “Citizen Kane” are obvious - the boisterous American magnate undone by ambition, shut off from the world - and one can find traces of Xanadu in Plainview’s estate, although the oilman is less a collector of things and more a collector of anger. The movie’s final sequence, in which a California preacher comes to beg Plainview for money, begins with an image of the oilman as a broken beast, lonely in a tattered sweater, wasting away on the floor of his private bowling alley (with no one to play with him); and ends with such glorious rage that we’re witnessing the unleashing of a lifetime’s worth of hate - like the furious geyser of oil on fire we saw earlier. This final scene is the best moment on film in the past… what, decade? two?
The California preacher is Eli, gloriously played by Paul Dano, who steers the film to operatic highs and lows. Eli is a quiet young man, soft-spoken as if every ounce of his body’s energy is devoted to the Lord. Then we see him in his church, flaming and fuming with screams of Pentecostal fury. Could this be the same man?
And more importantly, could Eli be playing a trick on Plainview? The oilman never lets the theory drop. Plainview is lured out to California with the promise of great riches and a community of rubes easily bought out - and this information is sold to Plainview by a quiet young man who looks just like Eli. They seem to be twins. Are they?
Anderson has insisted that there is no fraud, that Eli and his twin Paul were intended to be different people, and confusion only set in once Dano was cast in both roles. I’d like to think that this does not matter. Paul could be real, he could be fake, but what’s truly important is the paranoia that pours out of Plainview from the first moment he eyes Eli. A potential conspiracy only deepens our notions of the oilman, and his unshakable distrust of everyone around him, especially the ones who demand money.
Plainview is a man without religion; he bristles when Paul asks him if he attends church, then fudges some standard answer he’s no doubt learned to give when trying to make deals with less secular-minded men. So when he first walks into Eli’s chapel and sees the preacher speaking in tongues in a fit of faith healing theatrics, he’s convinced the preacher is a phony. And why not? If Plainview can manipulate people’s greed for his own benefit, why shouldn’t Eli do the same with their souls? To Plainview, Eli is just another trickster seeking power. There’s a glint of appreciation in his eye, but that glint is surrounded by caution.
Again, Eli could very well be legitimate, but it does not matter. Plainview’s image of him is more important to the story than any truth. After all, the third act proves the oilman right: even if Eli was an honest man, he’s become greedy over time, knowing that he can milk the oilman for cash, just like everyone else. It’s the great American theme: money will bury your soul. (This is why the final scene smacks so sharply, with Plainview delivering one long “fuck you!” to this man of God who came to connote every good man gone bad in Plainview’s life.)“Blood” is a magnificent character epic, a broadly told work that, despite its sweeping vision, never loses sight of the intimate. Anderson deals in wide strokes, with long, poetic takes, sets that seem to sprawl into infinity, and a contemplative tone that washes over the project with a sense of great, almost proud, loneliness. The film is a technical marvel on every level, a grand achievement of sight and sound, a pure widescreen delight for the senses. And through it all, Anderson never loses track of the personal. More than just the best film of the year, “Blood” is one of cinema’s grandest character studies, the portrait of a man obsessed with anger and suspicion, and where it takes him, and us with him.
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originally posted: 01/11/08 21:11:38