Published at: Dec. 28, 2007, 8:53 p.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
I fully anticipate this will be a film that will be hard for many people to choke down. Daniel Plainview, the character played by Lewis, is one of the most flawed and disturbing “heroes” in film history. But it’s obvious while watching the film that PTA fell in love with the character as he was writing him, flaws and all, and decided to follow him to whatever end occurred, not worrying about making it safe or whether or not we’ll “like” Plainview. It is unapologetic. It is clear-eyed in its purpose. In a way, it shocks me how direct the storytelling is. This is not a film like EL TOPO where you’re going to argue about what’s going on or what it means. PTA’s last two films, MAGNOLIA and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, were left turns into a sort of oblique artsy playfulness that was maddening to some viewers, and I got the feeling he was sort of going in circles waiting for his best work to arrive. HARD EIGHT and BOOGIE NIGHTS were both so authentic, so packed with energy and enthusiasm for storytelling, that I felt like all we needed to do was wait for him to find the right story to tell.
Imagine if Martin Scorsese had realized at some point that no one was going to give two shits about Leonardo Di Caprio in GANGS OF NEW YORK and decided instead to just make a three hour Bill The Butcher movie.
That’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
The first section of the film, told without dialogue, is raw filmmaking, beautiful and primal and powerful, and as I watched it unfold, I started to realize that this is not the same director we’ve seen in the past. PTA was one of many promising filmmakers who emerged in the late ‘90s with visual acumen that was obviously accrued from an encyclopedic knowledge of other films. He cribbed mercilessly, but I always thought he did it in a way that just added visual punch to very real and heartfelt characters that he wrote. The point of his films was not to do homage. There were just visual ideas he couldn’t resist throwing in as a lifelong film nut. It’s not a bad thing, per se, that I can watch BOOGIE NIGHTS and know immediately that he’s a fan of I AM CUBA.
But this year, I’ve seen many film fans express profound disappointment with Rodriguez and Tarantino for GRINDHOUSE, which they saw as wallowing in the past, drowning in homage. And although I had a great, great time with GRINDHOUSE, I can see why it would frustrate someone looking for growth from either of those filmmakers. Quentin’s enormously gifted, but I can see how some people must be furious to see him using those gifts for mimicry more than invention. He’s like the single greatest maker of movie mix-tapes ever.
With PTA, THERE WILL BE BLOOD is the moment where he matures past mimicry, past experimentation, into being the muscular and mature storyteller that I prayed he was going to become. I think it’s even safe to say that with this film, he has leapt past most of his peers in terms of technique and, more importantly, purpose. This is the work of a powerful artist in full bloom, and I have a feeling this is a film we’re going to be digesting for years to come.
By the time we’re properly introduced to Plainview, he’s already begun to prosper as an oil man. He travels with his son, H.W., played by the serious-faced Dillon Freasier, and the two of them make a formidable sales team. Plainview is portrayed from the very start as an expert manipulator, not above using his son to sell the image of stability and trustworthiness to people he despises in order to get whatever he wants from them.
One of the central questions of the film, in fact, is whether Plainview is even capable of love or any other normal human emotion. Is it possible that he loves nothing other than oil and money? Is it ambition that flows in his veins? Does avarice keep the heart beating? His loathing of all of humanity keeps bubbling up throughout the film like crude oil on untapped land, and it’s what makes the character so fascinating to me, so unexpected and so unlike the normal lead in a film. Plainview is a misanthrope, clearly illustrated by several incidents in the film, but he seems to have earned it honestly. One gets the feeling that this is a man who trusts only what he can hold in his hands, only what he can quantify. The ethereal business between people eludes him, frustrates him, makes him feel left out. He’s not wired to love, so he’s not wired to trust people who feel love. When he looks at a community, he doesn’t see all the benefits, all the human pleasures that come from having neighbors. All he sees are the motives, the agendas, the parasitic side of things. He is repulsed when he sees in others things he recognizes of himself. Watching him click into slick-ass salesman mode becomes morbidly hilarious once you start to understand Plainview. When he’s hustling people, he is both completely honest and utterly false at once. He’s like a great white shark wearing a human being mask that just barely covers that enormous razor-sharp smile.
Even so... the relationships he does forge with others, either by choice or by circumstance, are the heart of this film. Watching Plainview struggle to plug himself into humanity is the drama here. Don’t listen to the crazy talkback loony who wants you to believe this is some thinly veiled metaphor about America’s reliance on oil. Horsefeathers to you, loony. This isn’t a metaphor at all, except in the sense that we can always, hopefully, see some reflection of our own humanity in the great films. All of the movies that I consider truly great, truly essential, movies that I not only own but also frequently revisit... they are all movies that in some way impart something that I consider central to who we are a species. And THERE WILL BE BLOOD is all about behavior. It’s all about the little moments, the choices Plainview makes, the way he reacts to his encounters with others. There are four characters who make dramatic impacts on him over the course of this epic life’s journey we witness, and those four characters define the way the film bobs and weaves before finally building to an iconic final scene.
Paul Dano plays two of those characters, the Sunday twins. Paul Sunday wanders into Plainview’s office one day and offers to outright sell him a piece of information. The location of a vast untapped reservoir of oil. A place where oil just bubbles up onto the ground, it’s so plentiful. I haven’t read Upton Sinclair’s novel OIL!, and I’m not going to pretend to have any idea how this is as an adaptation, but it certainly feels like PTA paints an authentic time and place with the first half of this film. When he’s setting up who Plainview is, he shows us the madness of oil mania in America. There’s an early scene where Plainview addresses all the citizens of a small town, but they’re so desperate, so crazed at the idea of making money off their land, that Plainview walks away. He doesn’t need the headache. He’s already a success. He knows how to do the job right, and that knowledge gives him a serenity, a power. He will make the land give him every drop of oil it has, no matter what. He will squeeze it and squeeze it and squeeze it, and he will always get it if it’s there. And he’s fair. He’s a good businessman, not some insane parody like Mr. Burns from THE SIMPSONS. He makes the people he deals with a lot of money. Plainview’s success story is genuine, earned. Plainview obviously deals with a lot of crackpots and when Paul Sunday turns up, selling this story with hints and vague statements, it would be easy to dismiss him. Plainview knows what to ask, though, knows precisely what information he needs to be able to tell if Paul is for real or not. The paltry sum he eventually pays Paul ends up looking like an even worse deal than Judas’s thirty pieces of silver once you factor in everything that happens because Plainview is sent to a tiny place called Little Boston in Isabella County.
Eli Sunday, the other brother, the one still living at home in Little Boston, is the role that Dano plays for most of the film, and he’s the main antagonist for Plainview. Eli is a holy man. Or, more precisely, Eli is a snake oil salesman who fancies himself a holy man. He’s got big ambitions for Little Boston and his role in the foundation of the town, and when Plainview shows up, Eli sees a way to piggyback his own ambitions onto Plainview’s plans for the area. What he doesn’t count on is how completely Plainview rejects religion, and in particular, the kind of religion that Eli is selling. From the moment they meet, these two are set on a collision course.
There’s his relationship with H.W., his adopted son, which I mentioned earlier. This is the trickiest one in the film, and I think the final sequence between the two of them can be interpreted several different ways. I think it’s a twisted moment of fatherly love, the only sort of expression that Plainview is capable of. I don’t see him rejecting H.W. Far from it. I think he is giving H.W. the precise ammunition he will need to be a success and compete against his father without holding back out of loyalty or affection. In some ways, this is the one character arc that PTA draws in haiku, leaving it open to interpretation. I think he connects the dots on a lot of the film, but he leaves some gaps in the H.W. story precisely so that you have to decide for yourself if Plainview’s a monster or just emotionally retarded.
The clues may lie in the way he deals with the fourth major character he plays off of, Henry, his “brother from another mother,” played to heartbreaking effect by Kevin J. O’Connor. Henry shows up and offers Plainview proof that they shared a father, and Plainview’s natural suspicions eventually give way to a real desire for family. Some of my favorite stuff in the film involves these two and a campfire conversation. And that may not sound like the most engrossing thing in the world, but the way PTA stages the entire film, every conversation is of nearly-biblical import, and every word spoken carries deadly weight.
Robert Elswit’s been working with PTA as his cinematographer for just over a decade, since PTA’s first film, and the relationship pays off here in a rich and remarkable visual palette that ably reflects the emotional landscape the screenplay lays out. The same is true of Jonny Greenwood’s brilliant score, unlike anything else I’ve heard in a theater this year. It doesn’t work like most film scoring, as direct punctuation to the images unfolding, but instead offers up a roiling, constantly simmering commentary on the larger primal forces at work just below the surface of the film. As Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview butt heads once, then twice, building towards a conclusion that justifies the title PTA gave the film, Greenwood’s score builds towards an apocalypse of its own. It’s an amazing debut for Greenwood as a composer for narrative features, and I hope it leads to a lot more work for him, and that he continues to push the envelope in terms of how he approaches what can often times be the most clichéd and tired contribution to a film.
I’m not going to tell anyone that they aren’t smart enough to “get” THERE WILL BE BLOOD, or yell and stamp my feet if it doesn’t win major awards. I’m not going to dig in and demand that everyone take the same things from it that I do. All I’m going to do is observe that it’s rare I feel this strongly about a film after only one viewing. This resonated for days and days after I saw it, though, and there are scenes I can’t shake, dialogue I can’t stop replaying. More than that, there’s this feeling that I had while watching it... a feeling I used to get a lot more frequently. And I think I figured out why it’s less common for me these days.
When you’re first falling in love with film, when you’re starting to realize you are a film geek, there are SO MANY amazing, classic, essential films and filmmakers that you need to catch up with. And thanks to video, I remember when I would fall in love with a filmmaker like Stanley Kubrick and I would be able to watch 2001, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, LOLITA, PATHS OF GLORY, THE KILLING, THE SHINING, and BARRY LYNDON all in the space of a week, all for the first time. Do you know what kind of a hole that left in the back of my skull? Once you’ve really caught up to a certain point, though, you don’t get to discover true classics as often, because there aren’t that many left. You don’t get to gobble up whole filmographies at once because you already have. That experience of having my brain chemistry altered by a film is more and more rare these days, and I suspect the same is true for many of you who are also rabid film freaks. You still hope you’re going to feel it whenever you put on some new film, but you’re starting to suspect that you’ve caught up... that you’re not going to get your head caved in as often... and it’s a little bit depressing.
Well, THERE WILL BE BLOOD was that sort of experience for me. It hit me that hard, that immediately. THERE WILL BE BLOOD restores my faith in American film in general. It is still possible to make a classic, a new film that tells a story in a unique way and that makes no apologies. This is not homage. It’s not post-modern. It’s not pastiche. It’s not a sequel. It’s not a remake. It’s not a reimagining. It’s not ironic. It’s not some ham-handed political screed. It’s not an excuse for style over substance. This is, simply put, a great story about a great character told confidently by a great filmmaker.
And these days, that sets it apart, an oasis of greatness that perfectly caps off a very strong year in film overall.
I’ve got a few more reviews to put up tonight and over the next few days (like THE ORPHANAGE and THE BUCKET LIST), a handful of films left to see (I just broke the 200 mark for 2007 today), and I’m sure I’ll be the very last person on the entire Internet to get to my “Favorites of 2007” list. Still, I’m hoping I can wrap up several pieces I’ve been brewing for a while now as I also find some time to enjoy the holiday.
In the meantime, Merry and Happy to all of you.