Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"There Will Be Blood" -- * * * *

It's only when a film like Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" comes along that you realize how useless superlatives are. I really don't want to pile onto the expectation-raising ejaculatory mound of praise, but this masterpiece left me shaken like few other films ever have. Though until now Anderson's work has seemed influenced by Altman more than anyone (and this film is dedicated to the late, great master filmmaker), "There Will Be Blood" belongs in the company of Stanley Kubrick's best, most haunting work. There's so much going on here thematically that I won't attempt to boil the film down to one thing that it's "about" as some are doing (e.g.: it's about the evils of capitalism, it's about the battle and similarities between business and religion, it's a parable about our current geopolitical situation and obsession with oil), I'd rather just think of it as the story of a monstrous, fascinating man, and allow everyone to take what they will from it. I don't even want to think about how mainstream moviegoers are going to respond to it, but this is the Christmas present film aficionados of all stripes have been waiting for. As the film's closing credits rolled, I literally couldn't get out of my seat, and I think that's going to be the case for many others. It may or may not be my #1 of 2007, but it's the only film in recent memory that left me exhilarated, blown away, literally shaking.

When we first meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), it's 1898 and he's in the thick of things, going in and out of a deep well, scratching away for silver with primitive tools and ropes. When a fellow miner is killed in the process, Plainview grabs hold of the man's baby (recently baptized by oil) and raises him as his own. 13 years later, now an established "oil man," Daniel and son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) receive a tip-off from mysterious stranger Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) about a small town out West, Little Boston, where oil is bubbling under the surface of land. While attempting to claim ownership of the land, oil and hearts and minds of the townspeople, Daniel frequently butts heads with charismatic young preacher, Eli Sunday, Paul's twin brother (also played by Dano); their back-and-forth confrontations/humiliations become the driving force of the film. As Daniel achieves more and more success and greed consumes him, the more rapidly he loses any sense of humanity and reveals his misanthropic nature. That's about as much as I want to reveal (the trailer is much more spoilery), since, as a character study on an epic scale, the journey is key here.

For a film that is more character than story driven, "Blood" has at least a dozen sequences here that are jaw-dropping filmmaking at its finest. Though there are many coming to mind, including the grandiose finale (more on that later) and a scene where a character sustains a crippling injury, I'll only discuss the two that take place in the first hour. The first is a truly amazing sequence that opens the film, with Daniel still mining for silver. Lasting about 15 minutes, without any dialogue, the sequence initially puts you inside that hunk of rock and then you travel with Daniel through the day and night's activities without any dialogue for the entire first reel. The soundtrack is made up entirely of Jonny Greenwood's unnerving score, and the sound effects of the rough-and-tumble proceedings. This opening should clue in certain types that this bold, unconventional work may not be their cup of tea. The other one jutting out in my memory is the sequence of a burning oil well that is remarkable not only visually, but for all the things it says about Daniel, and how the issues of human life, family and wealth are sequenced for him in terms of importance. I hate to even pick out two, because almost every scene is astonishing for their shot composition and the way they utilize music, sound and dialogue. Even a shot as simple as Daniel swimming in the ocean inexplicably makes our jaw drop, and reminds us that five years is just too fucking long to wait for a new P.T. Anderson picture.

Operatically opening and closing with title cards displaying 'There Will Be Blood' in the gothic font on display in the poster, everything has been carefully orchestrated here, not least of which, every line of dialogue we're afforded. It's really a pleasure to listen to actors deliver lines here, capturing the foreign-to-us manner of artful delivery and simultaneous careful and wordy manner-of-speaking in these times. With Daniel (whose first words of the film, are deceptively, "Ladies and gentleman..."), it's extremely important to listen to every word coming out of his mouth, as they enrich our interpretation of the man. Anderson certainly doesn't give us any explanation or backstory for Daniel, so it's up to us to figure him out. On repeat viewings (and believe me, you will have repeat viewings), it'd be an interesting case study to look at every one of Daniel's lines, and decipher which ones are actually manifestations of real feelings, which he uses as verbal cannon-fodder (he tells Eli, after a particularly fiery sermon, "That was one goddamn hell of a show"), and which are a complete part of his bullshit facade and forced formality. My favorite of the latter is his response when asked which faith/church he belongs to: "I like them all." This is a screenplay that really digs into this man, and takes us further into him than many may want to go. I can't see anyone not being gripped, but I can certainly imagine some clamoring for escape from it (a major critic at my screening bolted for the door at film's end as if the theater was on fire).

Early ravers on the film have already commented that Jonny Greenwood's unsettling score is like a character in and of itself, and that couldn't be more true. Kicking off the film with a loud, insect-like buzzing, the score is unlike any I've ever heard before, and whether working perfectly with the events on screen or seemingly disparate from them, it always serves an ultimate purpose and enriches what its being paired with. I have the Soundtrack CD-- I can't stop listening to it-- and hearing it over and over only reminds me how unnerving it is, and how in the context of the film it completely amplifies one's sense of dread and foreboding. Reminiscent of the scores of both "2001" and early horror films, the music drives home the consistent theme that the events unfolding on screen are only going to get worse, not better. I was initially disappointed that Anderson elected not to utilize the brilliant skills of frequent collaborator Jon Brion for "Blood," but having seen the film, it's unquestionably the right decision, as it's a totally different style of film than anything he's done before. Though the scores are so wildly different, this is most definitely THE score of the year, as Clint Mansell's score for "The Fountain" was last year, and for the same reasons. They are wholly original, completely work in defining the film, and inescapably haunting.

It's completely redundant by this point to say Daniel Day-Lewis gives an astonishing performance. The man could single-handedly turn "Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem" into an Oscar movie. But Daniel Plainview may very well be the crowning achievement of his awe-inspiring career. Reminiscent of the best work of Olivier, and equipped with a John Huston accent that completely works for the character and doesn't come off as imitation, this performance reminds us that a new Day-Lewis performance is an event in and of itself. The fact that it comes in a movie just as amazing as it is just icing on the cake (he's mind-blowingly great in "Gangs of New York," but his awesomely cartoonish Bill the Butcher overwhelmed the movie itself).

While taking us deeply inside this man, we ultimately still don't learn a whole hell of a lot about Plainview; the movie apparently has the same views as the man himself, who proclaims, "I don't like to explain myself." For example, it's debatable whether Daniel actually ever feels any sort of love or fatherly affection for H.W. or is merely using him as a pawn to earn potential investors' trust (Personally, I think it's a combination of the two, and in a warped sort of way, Daniel actually does love H.W. and just doesn't know what to do with those feelings). Delivering lines like no other actor, and saying much more when he's not saying anything-- this performance is a masterpiece of stares, head tilts, and facial contortions-- Day-Lewis gives, no exaggeration, one of the all-time great performances here. It's really unfathomable to me that someone could prefer (no disrepect) George Clooney's performance in "Michael Clayton" or Johnny Depp's work in "Sweeney Todd" to something as epic and transcendent as this.

I'm still working my feelings out on Dano's performance. He's at least very good, and you never don't buy him as Eli (or in his one scene, Paul), but occasionally it does feel like he's ACTING to his absolutely limits and doesn't quite make it, particularly during his impassioned sermons. He also holds his own in scenes against Day-Lewis, if never quite seeming as much of a match for Plainview as he should. Still, it's an impressive leap from the work we've seen him do before, and he certainly does give his all to a part that I'd imagine was notoriously difficult to cast. While Dano may not have been perfect, I'm having difficulty placing another actor who could've done this complete justice.

As with "No Country for Old Men," it's virtually impossible to discuss "There Will Be Blood" without mentioning its nasty, balls-out ending. Like I did for that film, I won't discuss specifics, or the contents of the final sequence of the third act, but if you don't want the generalities spoiled, just skip past the next paragraph:


The last twenty-five minutes of "There Will Be Blood" jump forward sixteen years to 1927, where Daniel has finally gotten his wish of making enough money to get away from everyone else. Charles Foster Kane-like living in a mansion, crazy as a loon, Daniel has climactic, bitter confrontations with, firstly, a grown-up H.W., and secondly, Eli. Without revealing exactly what takes place, some have argued that the tone and events of this last segment are a jarring shift from what's come before it, but I disagree. While, yes, the film ends on a note of batshit insanity that brings things to an operatic, almost cartoonish level, the way this film builds, anything less would have been a massive disappointment. And in terms of the events that transpire, I found it to be keeping in line completely with everything we know about the character(s) by that point, and struck me as things reaching their logical conclusion; on top of which, we get a phenomenal/nuts monologue involving an analogy about milkshakes that is just perfect. P.T.A. has always crafted controversial, debate-inspiring endings ("Magnolia" particularly comes to mind), and "Blood" is no different. While borderline terrifying, this finale is also remarkably satisfying and fits perfectly. By the time the film cut to black, my mouth was agape and I was unable to move. Blackly funny while tremendously disturbing and haunting, and closing with a line of dialogue destined to become legendary, this is (take notes, filmmakers of tomorrow) how to fucking end a movie.


Like many film enthusiasts, I have a sincere feeling of adoration towards Paul Thomas Anderson's work; "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights" are both on my all-time favorites lists, and I think "Punch-Drink Love" and "Sydney" are really great as well. I don't quite know where "There Will Be Blood" stands in terms of his work, except to say it's the most accomplished thing he's ever done (like "Zodiac" was for Fincher), and it's so radically different than any of his other films, so there's no real comparison. Anderson is one of the most continually surprising filmmakers around, as well as one of the most exciting. Almost every film geek I know is eagerly anticipating this, his latest, and there's a reason for that. I can't even possibly imagine what his next film could be like, and man, is that a great feeling.

Running two hours and twenty-nine minutes sans credits (which run about eight minutes themselves), "There Will Be Blood" is almost agressively compelling and unlike anything you've ever seen, though comparisons to Kubrick, "Citizen Kane," "Giant" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" are all deserved. Given its admirable devotion to the documentation of unpleasantness, I'm honestly extremely surprised at the level of universal praise its been receiving so far. While the film is a masterpiece, I'm genuinely shocked that SO many critics have recognized it as such; if anything, I thought the film would at least be divisive. Well, I guess it still has audiences to divide, if not critics. Either way, I'm grateful that films as remarkable as "There Will Be Blood" are still being made, and regardless of box office, awards, reviews, audience reaction, whatever, I don't care. I love it completely and unabashedly. To quote Daniel Plainview, it's one goddamn hell of a show.

"There Will Be Blood" opens tomorrow, Wednesday December 26th in 2 theaters nationwide (Loews Lincoln Square in New York and The Arclight in Hollywood), and will have a Sneak Preview showing at midnight on Saturday, December 29th in the following cities: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego, Seattle, Toronto, and Washington D.C. It will open in 51 theaters in those markets on January 4th, expand further to about 200 theaters on January 11th and opens in 800 theaters nationwide on January 18th.

AWARDS POTENTIAL: Best Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Best Art Direction are the only 100% locks. If it goes Best Picture, or even if not, I think we're also looking at Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor (Paul Dano).


Anonymous cjKennedy said...

Well said. I smile just thinking about this movie, though like you I'm leaning strongly toward NCfOM as my #1...if I must choose.

I like how you said it was PTA's most accomplished film, even if you're not prepared to declare it your favorite. Everyone will have the one the like best, but you really can't say this isn't a significant leap forward for Anderson.

The tonal shift of the ending didn't bother me at all. For one thing, it wasn't that much of a shift...as others have noted, this was already a frequently blackly funny film...but it also works perfectly. It takes a very very good film and makes it brilliant.

For me the last line is right up there with A Clockwork Orange's "I was cured alright."

Nice review.

12:35 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

"...expectation-raising ejaculatory mound of praise..." *yummy*

**mild spoilers below**

I think if you understand this film as a character study of two exceptionally charismatic and manipulative individuals, the last act is entirely consistent (both tonally and thematically) with the rest of the film. In the opening scene, Daniel already possesses the fundamental sociopathic character traits and relentless competitive drive that (if pushed to its logical extreme) necessitates his character's presentation at the end of the film. Essentially, Daniel's character development throughout the entire film is merely the process by which he actualizes and cultivates the potential suggested during the opening sequence.

I also think the Daniel/Eli resolution is the only logical conclusion for their conflicting, but parallel characters. Each time Daniel and Eli collide, one gains a power advantage at the cost of the other. Given the extreme humiliation suffered by Daniel at the hands of Eli during the baptism sequence, is the reciprocal, operatic ending really that disparate? If both characters are essentially putting on an act to manipulate their respective followers, it makes strange sense that Paul Dano isn't quite entirely convincing in his grandiloquent, theatrical scenes--because, in the end, Daniel (both the character and the actor) is the more powerful of the two.


10:52 AM  
Blogger Steve Schwartz said...

you know, it's kinda funny that you should mention "giant". i got that feeling through out the movie, how similar it was, if only for the visuals.

but i think the end of it was the best part. it really brought it together in a logical sort of way. it seemed the best place for the characters to end up and was the perfect punchline for the symbolism that trailed the two of them throughout the film. sort of like a western "streetcar named desire".

i read that Dano was the second choice for the film, because the first actor was overwhelmed by Day-Lewis's method of acting and they had to replace him. i'm excited to see what the kid does from here on out.

a beautiful/haunting film that will without a doubt stand the test of time, regardless of where it stands this awards season.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous MACK said...

THIS movie made my head hurt; the reviews prepared me for greatness. I was in my seat and ready to receive. What came about was a God vs. Mammon theme played out in turn-of-century California, with Mammon eventually winning, or sort of winning, or winning the battle but not the war. Steeples of derricks vs. steeples of churches. Etc. But the inconsistencies within the movie left me with the worry that I'd just seen pseudo profundity. Remember when you were a teenager and everyone sais you had to see the brilliance of Fellini and you went and thirty years later still can't figure out what was going on? Same here. Maybe nothing but what you see. As for Daniel D-L, since when does Godzilla chewing scenery count as great acting? That boy can chew as if his life depended on it. Go see it, and be honest about your reaction. Don't just love it because critics loved it. What do they ever know?

5:53 PM  

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