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"I can't keep doing this on my own, with these....people," laments Daniel Plainiew, midway through Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film. That final word, "people," tumbles out of Daniel Day-Lewis' mouth like a piece of sour meat, rotting and foul-tasting. It's a defining moment for his character: as far as he's concerned, people are just no damn good. The problem is, he's just as much of a bastard as the rest of them. And try as he might to remove everyone else from his life, he can't quite escape his own tarnished shadow.
Plainview is a relentlessly self-made man. The film's masterfully executed opening sequence runs for ten almost completely wordless minutes. In it, Anderson shows Plainview’s rise from shabby, bearded prospector searching for the smallest scrap of precious metal all by himself in deep and dangerous mineshafts, to self-proclaimed "oil man". The holes he graduates to are still dark and deadly, but the rewards are now far greater. Along the way, he picks up a son, orphaned by one of his own oil wells. He displays a great deal of what appears to be love for the boy, until the point when the child no longer becomes a business asset. Plainview is a liar, a cheat, a raging alcoholic. Day-Lewis, in a performance of unbelievable intensity, imbues him with a grasp of sanity that is only just barely controlled. That Anderson can build such a towering and engaging epic around such a distasteful character is just one of the many brilliant mysteries of There Will Be Blood.
Anderson's vision is uncompromising and razor sharp. Nothing in his first four features quite prepares us for the precision and vicious wit displayed here. While his previous films have a flair for epic tragedy (with the exception of the bizarre love-story of Punch Drunk Love), and a mastery in their creation of a uniting mood and atmosphere, they have a certain showiness. In TWBB, there is a confidence and a grace that seems effortless. Anderson disappears within his film just as surely as Day-Lewis and Paul Dano disappear within the respective madness of their characters.
Dano's performance is a marvel as well. He first appears as Paul Sunday, a quietly back-stabbing black sheep who sells a hot tip on an ocean of oil on his family's land, of which the rest of the clan is barely aware. For the rest of the movie, he’s Paul’s twin brother, Eli, a fire-and-brimstone preaching prodigy. The manic ravings of Eli's sermons come off as slightly forced, which initially smacks of a weak performance on Dano's part. That is, until one realizes that Eli is just as two-faced in his faith-healing and demon-casting as Plainview himself, who tries to pass himself off as a simple quail hunter looking to purchase a quiet plot of land in the hardscrabble California desert in an effort to swindle it away from Eli's naïve family. Eli doesn't believe anything he's saying any more than Plainview does, and he's as convincing as he needs to be for the dusty hicks who form his fawning congregation. The duplicitous natures of both men mask deep-seated and ugly greed.
As their conflict plays out, each man vying for the approval of the community (and the riches that approval can lead to), the film sets up a dirty competition between commerce and religion. May he who lies most effectively be the winner, leaving most of the rest of the characters to exist as foolish losers for believing them in the first place. The fallout of this war of wills touches nearly everyone around the two men, particularly their families: there will be "blood" indeed.
Anderson's unsentimental and often bleak story may seem wildly misanthropic, but it's cut from the same cloth that informs Stanley Kubrick's films, as well as John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which Anderson reportedly watched incessantly while writing the script. It expresses a profound disappointment with our inability to control the baser natures in all of us. There's a weird sympathy to be had for Daniel Plainview, for as despicable as he is, he's a sad, weak man. The internal conflict Anderson sends home with viewers is the real genius of the film.
Parallels to Kubrick exist in more obvious fashions as well. There's the silent and primitive opening, reminiscent of 2001; Jonny Greenwood's flawless score, which often recalls the horror-strings of Penderecki for which Kubrick had so much affinity. And finally, there is the film's lengthy, mind-bending concluding scene, which reaches baroque levels of absurdity and black, black humor. With this film, beautiful in both its unsettling story and its poetic visuals, P.T. Anderson sets himself apart from his peers.— I. Buckwalter, DCist
Thu & Fri September 20 & 21, 2012, 8:00 only, VAC Basement Auditorium (1B20)
USA, 2007, in English, Color, 158 min, 2.35 : 1 • official site