Paul Thomas Anderson has never been known for subtlety; when your cinematic breakthrough is capped with a medium shot of a large prosthetic penis dangling forlornly from Mark Wahlberg, it’s hard to be considered an understated artist. Indeed, if not for the more reserved drama of his feature debut, Hard Eight, writer-director Anderson would be known exclusively for the frenetic storytelling and constant sense of near-panic that floods his films, from the rose-colored history of Boogie Nights to the brilliant fervor of Magnolia and the tender, impressionistic romance of Punch-Drunk Love. But Anderson’s latest film, There Will Be Blood, is both a masterpiece and a surprising one in that it unfolds with few of the stylistic flashes that Anderson had made his oeuvre. Maybe it’s the fact that Anderson, who turns 38 this year, is beginning to realize that his age demands a certain amount of control over the material at hand; that could also be why he’s now credited as the more grown-up sounding Paul Thomas Anderson instead of the youthful and cavorting “P.T.” of his earlier years. Whatever the case, Anderson has made in There Will Be Blood the kind of sweeping, damning tale of American toil and corruption that stands as a hallmark of early 21st-century film and catapults Anderson beyond the level of gifted Gen Xish filmmaker and into the realm of the all-time greats, and he does it by both playing to his strengths and branching out into newer, bigger territory. Anderson’s eye is on the dirtier parts of our cultural history — like the book says, we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us — but he’s also laying track toward the future of modern American filmmaking.
The film opens with a howl of dissonant strings that recalls some of Stanley Kubrick’s films, and Jonny Greenwood’s fantastic score crescendos even as it pulls itself into one unison blast that serves as an eerie warning of the story, and the man, about to appear. It’s 1898, and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a poor miner working alone, just a pickax and a lamp at the bottom of a hole dug out of blasted waste and rocks. He’s digging for ore, but as the film charts the physical dangers of mining and Plainview’s first modest successes pulling wealth from stone, skipping forward to 1902, there’s no dialogue or narration. The only thing carrying the story is Plainview, and Day-Lewis moves his lanky frame around the screen with a dangerous grace, betraying a man of concentration and coiled energy. Plainview’s most defining moment happens several minutes in: He falls down his shaft and breaks his leg, but instead of screaming for help or even attempting to escape, the first thing he does is look around for the ore he was trying to blast loose. “There it is,” he whispers in the first spoken words of the film. It’s not that Plainview has no regard for his life; it’s that he views that life as meaningless unless he’s achieving the success he strives for daily.
Day-Lewis carries the opening sequence effortlessly, but Anderson isn’t creating a one-man show. By 1911, Plainview has moved from ore to oil and started his own drilling company, traveling from one dusty Southern California town to another, chasing the black river beneath his feet and selling his leasing and excavation services to homesteads so that he can aggregate his burgeoning empire. This is when he’s visited by Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), a young man from a town called Little Boston who claims that his father’s ranch is sitting on a large oil field. Plainview attempts to railroad Paul on a price for his information, but Paul is young, not stupid, and he’s the first person we see really stand up to Plainview, or at least resist his initial charms. Plainview’s condescension hides a few flashes of anger, but the tension between the two men is all done with performances, not editing or music. Anderson, working again with cinematographer Robert Elswit — who has shot every one of Anderson’s films — keeps the camera stationary more than ever before, framing a scene with the skill of a painter and then letting it play out naturalistically, eschewing standard reverse cuts during many conversations and instead allowing the actors’ body language and dialogue to dictate the pace of the scene.
Plainview and his young son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), eventually travel to Little Boston to inspect the land and set up wells, and the bulk of the film follows Plainview’s tangled dealings with the townsfolk, the troubles that befall his operation, and the lengths he’ll go to just to win. But Anderson could never do a straight period (melo)drama, and There Will Be Blood is shot through with a mystical element that encompassed everything from faith-healing to missing brothers to the question of reality. When Plainview visits the Sunday ranch to begin prospecting, he meets the entire clan, including and elder son, Eli, who’s also played by Dano; Paul is nowhere to be seen, and barely mentioned. It’s a bizarre quirk of the story, and Anderson plants the seed of unease with the dual casting and murky family relationships, then promptly moves on, letting the constant question in the viwer’s mind — namely, “What the hell is going on with Eli/Paul?” — act as a kind of emotional catalyst to the story. Eli, though just a young man, is a pastor and faith healer at a tiny church in town, and he and Plainview engage in a cold war for the direction of the well and the effect it will have on the surrounding families.
Plainview is a relentless man, a monster of a human being brought to grandiose life by Day-Lewis, who barrels his way through the film like a runaway fire. For all his skill and the sheer ease and malleability with which he creates new characters, Day-Lewis is an impossibly infrequent performer. This is his ninth feature role in the 18 years since My Left Foot, but maybe that reclusiveness adds to the persona he creates in the viewer’s mind: He’s both instantly recognizable but also somehow forgettable. I’ve seen many of his films, and I couldn’t have described his voice or mannerisms to you before having this latest version of them imprinted on my mind. In Anderson’s film, he gives a towering performance, oscillating between a reserved introspection and a purposefully insane, over-the-top turn designed to sell the character’s individual shortcomings as representations of the generation of men who gave their souls for crude fortunes. “I have a competition in me,” Plainview says, and he’s so forthright about it that it’s unnerving. But he’s matched every step of the way by Dano, who’s leading Emile Hirsch in the race of Best Actors To Come Out Of The Girl Next Door. Dano plays Eli with a deep well of calm piety, and he firmly counters Plainview at every opportunity, holding out for more money for his father’s land and at one point blackmailing Plainview into being baptized just so Plainview can get the rights to set up a pipeline. The conflict between these two men is enthralling.
“I had it in my head, underneath it all, that we were making a horror film,” Anderson has said of There Will Be Blood. But while his comment may have been more focused on the terrible appeal of seeing Plainview’s life come unraveled, the story itself is one of the ultimate modern horror: The birth of a nation at the expense of itself. Anderson’s story remains wisely apolitical and focuses instead on the human cost of American growth at the turn of the 20th century, and the film is both recognizably Andersonian and bigger than anyone could have expected it to be. It’s a towering, perplexing, thoroughly engrossing film that’s a storytelling tour de force and the stunning affirmation that Anderson remains one of the best American working today, and maybe ever.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.You Got What You Want, Now You Can Hardly Stand It
Film | February 14, 2008 | Comments ()