Blossoms and ‘Blood’

Here’s what I know: Once upon a time, I had a fight with an old roommate. I crashed into my bed for some angry sleep. It was around 11 p.m. At 11:20ish, I heard Aimee Mann in the living room. Cunning-genius roommate was luring me awake with Magnolia, knowing full-well that I’d never be able to rest my head — not until I’d finished all three perfect hours of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2000 feature.

We made up.

The same trick would not have worked with PTA’s first film in five years, There Will Be Blood — a loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil!. If I heard its The Shining-evocative score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, I probably would have covered my ears with pillows (so I wouldn’t have nightmares) and rolled over. There’s no way, exhausted, post-argument on a weekday, I could keep my lids peeled for its two hours and 40

Now, now, now — hold yer horses — I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying it’s not as emotionally arresting as some other pictures out there. Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey couldn’t come between a worn-out me and catchin’ a few winks, either. (Actually, since we weren’t on the topic of embarrassing confessions, I’ve never made it all the way through 2001. Yawn. Sue me.)

I did make it far enough in, however, to appreciate that the first 20-or-so silent minutes of There Will Be Blood are clearly descended from the initial sequence of Kubrick’s 1968 Oscar-winner. Beyond its rumination on greed and the dawn of the fossil-fuel age — the film’s lack of a “point” or “moral” gives it an artifact-like quality — Blood is a movie-buff’s movie in the tradition of the aforementioned groundbreakers, which, as you can imagine, is more than just a “departure” for Anderson. He’s on a completely different fucking planet.

Groundbreaking Blood is not, but epic it is, and witnessing the work of universally accepted
wunderkind Anderson’s hand on such a grand scale certainly qualifies as an event (with no little contribution from regular collaborator Robert Elswit, who, with Rodrigo Prieto and Bruno Delbonnel, pretty much rules the contemporary cinematography landscape).

A rope tied like a noose drops into the frame in the moments just before There Will Be Blood becomes a talkie. If the title — extracted from a passage in Exodus (thanks Slate!) — wasn’t ominous enough for you, well there’s your cue: The knot, as we see later, is meant to hoist an oil-drilling bit. Lording over this particular site, and the film, is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), an erstwhile silver miner who successfully turned his attentions to black gold in the early 20th century. Despite his skill, it’s the adoption of a baby boy that transforms him into an “oilman”: In time, family-values propaganda becomes an integral part of his sales pitch, his young son standing preternaturally stiff at his right side as he attempts to swindle communities out of their petroleum-rich property.

One night, a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) shows up at Plainview’s place with a drilling tip. He disappears after coming to a financial agreement with Daniel, who is soon off with his son, H.W., to “quail hunt” (read: prospect) in Little Boston at the oil-sopped Sunday Ranch. The pair is brought firewood by the town’s own teen evangelist, Eli Sunday (also Dano), who is either Paul’s twin, or “Paul” never existed at all. (The second theory is more appealing to me; it would be attractively ambiguous, and playing into Blood’s biblical theme of deceiving brothers — but a second viewing of Blood makes me think maybe not.)

Like Daniel, Eli is a salesman who isn’t used to being seen through — a serpentine holy roller whose authority is never challenged — and neither man wishes to sell out to the other, thereby acknowledging his opposite number’s façade. There’s really only room for one of them in Little Boston, “God” or Mammon, and the shootout is some show.

Now while that conflict seems pretty central to the plot, it ain’t so much a film about plot as it is about a character. A character who’s circling the drain. The drain of madness. When or why that descent begins is anyone’s guess. Daniel certainly has a number of potential reasons to lose it: guilt, greed, alcohol — but none makes sense.

I know, I know, isn’t that just a typical American of me to want some kind of psychological explanation? How quaint. But as much a dynamic stranger Daniel Plainview may seem to me, Day-Lewis is so overwhelmingly watchable as him that I didn’t realize I didn’t get him until the next day. I’ll attribute that to the old (and possibly fake, I am culling from Adaptation here) Robert McKee saying: “You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”

Day-Lewis and Dano are both at their best in the film’s last, awe-inspiring scene, the darkly funny final confrontation between preacher and prospector, which rubbed the vast majority of critics the wrong way, but that I wish the entire movie had been more like: Anderson employed one of his signature long takes to capture the palpably humiliating, blasphemous back-and-forth, a stark contrast to the more alienating, minimally-stylized body of Blood that strongly hints at this level of action, but never sells it. This is the kind of shit that could keep me awake at night — maybe even save marriages. I can’t wait for more. •

There Will Be Blood
Dir. & writ. Paul Thomas Anderson; feat. Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano , Kevin J. O’Connor (R)

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