Thursday, September 16, 2010

PERSONAL FAVES: There Will Be Blood

Posted as part of Moon in the Gutter’s Paul Thomas Anderson blog-a-thon.

Upfront warning: SPOILERS – barrels of ’em.

Critics have found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s work many points of reference with other filmmakers’. And with good reason. ‘Boogie Nights’ is a prime example: the aesthetics of ‘Goodfellas’ welded to the narrative infrastructure of ‘Short Cuts’ with a final scene that plays like a love-letter to Tarantino.

The adjective most critics trotted out for ‘There Will Be Blood’ was "Kubrickian". Again, with good reason. The more I watch it, the more I’m convinced that ‘There Will Be Blood’ is Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.

Wait! Put the phone down! No need to summon the men in the white coats. Tear up those committal papers. I can explain.

The lengthy prologue of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ has a large black monolith turn up at the dawn of evolution. This is where mankind is at: they’re apes, huddling in packs, unable to find a way to disable, let alone dine on, the lumbering mammals they have dimly identified as a source of food. Stronger packs attack them. The encounter with the monolith changes everything. One particular ape finds a bone, picks it up. A few tentative experiments and the ape realises it can smash other bones with it. Synapses fuse; possibilities open. Hey, you can also use the bone to fend off the aggressor pack. You can bash their skulls in with it. Hey, if you can use it to kill other apes, you can use it to kill mammals. Violence follows: violence, carnivorous instincts and the application of the first tools. An ape flings a bone triumphantly into the air. Match cut: a spaceship drifting elegantly through the silent emptiness of the galaxy.

Kubrick’s genius (ever so slightly borrowed, it has to be said, from Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Canterbury Tale’) is to edit out the whole bloody and ignominious history of human development while brilliantly suggesting it. To omit wars and genocide and greed and disharmony and transport us seamlessly to a point at which humanity has ventured beyond the stars.

‘There Will Be Blood’ basically fills in the gap. Well, some of it. It fills in the gap where mankind is just about ready to shuck off its agriculturalism, embrace industrialism and the internal combustion engine with a teat-sucking dependency, and fast-forward itself towards advanced technology while at the same time irrevocably fucking up this planet.

Has mankind ever made a more self-destructive discovery than oil? How many wars, how much politicking? Had anything before oil inspired quite so much greed, made money a god quite as intrinsically? The central conflict of ‘There Will Be Blood’ – business vs. the church – doesn’t need any explanation. Anderson’s genius is that he shows both belief systems, both forms of worship, as inherently flawed. And, just to make things even thornier, inherently intertwined.

We first meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1898, digging for gold. He’s alone, in the wild, cold and unshaven and squatting where he’s made camp, bedraggled and a barely recognisable figure of a man, his appearance not too far removed from one of Kubrick’s apes.

The finding of it almost kills him, but he strikes lucky. The gold finances his next enterprise: prospecting. He’s running his own outfit, employing some men. They strike oil. Then tragedy strikes. One is killed in an accident, orphaning an infant son. Another jump ahead in time: to 1911. Plainview is passing the boy, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) off as his own, the angelic lad a deal-clencher as the loquacious and persuasive Plainview establishes himself as a contractor. It’s at this stage of his career that the weasly Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) approaches him demanding cash up front for the location of an oil-rich area of land. Paying up – but not before threatening the lad with severe retribution should this information prove false – Plainview and H.W. inveigle themselves into Paul’s homestead. This is where Plainview meets Paul’s twin brother (and fire-and-brimstone preacher) Eli (also Dano) and the two men find themselves at odds.

For all that Eli bashes the Bible with the best of ’em, it’s Plainview who emerges as an almost Old Testament figure – or at least a corrupted and perverse parody of one. Plainview abandons and betrays the son who isn’t his son and mistrusts and finally murders the brother who isn’t his brother. For all that Eli is as obsessed with money as Plainview, for all that his sanctimonious behaviour belies a snivelling cowardice and a petty desire for one-upmanship (at one point he attempts to humiliate Plainview in a travesty of baptism which the oilman has been forced into in order to complete a business deal), Plainview commits the film’s greatest act of hypocrisy: the man who profits from and then turns his back on a false son commits murder when a familial deception is perpetrated on him.

‘There Will Be Blood’ is a deep and troubling film that, for the most part, plays out as supremely entertaining and sometimes darkly funny, particularly in its divisive final scene which I know that some people vehemently hate but which I found so uproariously inspired that almost stood and applauded in the middle of the cinema. "Draaaaaiiinnnnnage, Eli boy!" Fantastic. And don’t get me started on "I drink your milkshake". Also, is it just me, or does the Plainview of this final scene seem to revert to the apelike figure which opened the movie?

You can watch ‘There Will Be Blood’ and take it as a morality tale, as a study in greed, as a comment on the loneliness and soullessness of the financially successful. You can take it as a comedy as black as the oil itself. The more you watch it, though, the more emerges. It’s a film that grows on you, even if (like me) you thought it was a bona fide masterpiece first time round. Again, it’s comparable to the oil: it bubbles up slowly from the depths only for its last scene to burst across the screen like a geyser, Day-Lewis’s incendiary performance searing the whole magnificent thing into your mind.

Kudos, too, to Robert Elswit’s awe-inspiring cinematography (like Day-Lewis, his work on the film earned an Oscar) and Jonny Greenwood’s often daringly experimental score, Anderson only deviating from Greenwood’s music as Plainview starts his drilling operation in celebratory style (and again for the end credits) to the stirring strains of the Brahms violin concerto. ‘There Will Be Blood’ claims the piece the way ‘2001’ claimed Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’.

When Mikhail Lermontov wrote his great embittered ironic novel, its protagonist Pechorin setting the archetype for the anti-hero in Russian literature (and perhaps in literature as a whole), he called it ‘A Hero of Our Time’. So here’s to Daniel Plainview, a hero of our time. Here’s to Daniel Plainview, huckster, oilman, miser, misanthrope and murderer. Here’s to Daniel Plainview who, perhaps more than anyone in cinema since Kubrick’s apes, truly points the way to the stars.


The Film Connoisseur said...

BRRRRa-Vo Sir!

I never made that connection with Kubrick's 2001, but I can defenetly see it now. I love when after seeing a movie more than once, we start picking up things like this.

This was one of my favorites that year, and in my opinion a far more profound film than No Country for Old Men, which beat There Will Be Blood to the Oscar for best picture.

This movie touches upon so many themes, greed, religion, family, but mostly, its about greed. The scene where Plainview's son rejects him and basically tells him he doesnt ever want to be anything like him...amazing!

Plainview due to his greed ends up sad and alone, while his son (even with his disability) finds true happiness and decides to do things differently.

Did you also see a connection with Citizen Kane? The greedy, lonely rich man at the end?

Great review man!

Bryce Wilson said...

Fantastic piece Neil. And yeah, I was wondering if the 2001 comparison wasn't a bit of a stretch, and then I saw those screencaps, and its like... oh.

I've always felt that the flaw in the movie, is that Eli never seemed like a true believer, but a snake oilsalesman from the start. It could just be me and my antipathy for fundies, but I've always felt that they could have made him just as hypocritical and loathsome if not more so, had he not always seemed like he was just bullshitting.

But yeah, this ranks among your best work. I second FC's bravo.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Hey Bryce, I think that with Eli, that was supposed to be the case. I dont think he was being portrayed as a truly spiritual person, he always seems to care more about the money then the preaching, which I think was the point that Anderson was trying to put across with this film.

Plainview and Sunday are very similar in that way, and I think they mirror each other in a way. They both control and gather the masses and use them to their advantage, only thing is that while Plainview pays the masses with wages, Eli pays them with a show.

Bryce Wilson said...

That's an excellent point, FC.

Still I think you've got a certain breed of these fundie guys who start buying their own bullshit en masse, and you get some real interesting looks at cognetive dissonance there.

I guess I was looking for a little more of that friction with Eli.

Samuel Wilson said...

Neil, that juxtaposition of Plainview and Moonwatcher is uncanny. Following from your suggestion, isn't Plainview's triumph also a triumph of the evolutionary viewpoint (in social Darwinist form)over Eli's spirituality, and wouldn't H. L. Mencken have applauded as loudly as you did? On the question of Eli's sincerity, I don't doubt that he sees himself as a uniquely blessed and gifted person, and I suspect it's a habit of such characters to consider themselves entitled and privileged as well. He'd be a true believer in the "prosperity gospel" today.

But if TWBB is 2001, is Eli HAL???

Neil Fulwood said...

Thanks for your comments, gentlemen.

Francisco - good call on the 'Citizen Kane' comparison. Plainview alone in his fabulously appointed mansion but more embittered than he's ever been is definitely reminiscent of Kane in Xanadu. Both men get everything they want materialistically but at the cost of their humanity.

Bryce - personally, I err towards Francisco's take: that Eli is just as much a shyster as Plainview, but whereas Plainview sells gullible small town citizens a vision of a better life right now, Eli's sales pitch is a better life in the next world. I'm still undecided as to who ultimately exacts the bigger price.

Sam - I'd love to have sat next to a resurrected Mencken at a screening of 'There Will Be Blood'. He'd have held court in the pub afterwards in fine style!

Furthering the '2001' comparison, I'd say that the oil itself is HAL.