Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (2007)

5. There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson wanted to make a movie with Daniel Day Lewis. This isn't surprising since Lewis is one of the most desired and critically beloved – not to mention elusive – performers of his generation. Luckily, Daniel Day Lewis was a fan of “Punch-Drunk Love” and wanted to work with Anderson. Anderson would draw from several different sources to make “There Will Be Blood:” An unfinished script about feuding families, detail research into the oil business at the turn of the century, Upton Sinclair's novel “Oil!,” and the lives of oil barons Edwin Doheny and Harry Sinclair. The resulting film would widely be hailed as the best picture of the year. Lewis' performance would be rapturously received. It very well be Paul Thomas Anderson's greatest film.

In 1898, Daniel Plainview goes digging for gold and silver. In 1902, he discovers oil instead and begins a successful drilling business. After a worker is killed, he adopts the man's child as his own son. Nine years later, Paul Sunday comes to Plainview, informing him of great amount of oil underneath his family's farm. Plainview's attempt to buy the land is challenged by Eli, Paul's twin brother and a budding preacher. Daniel buys the Sunday farm but only after agreeing to let Eli build a church on the land. Soon, a rivalry forms between Plainview and Eli, each humiliating each other in their quest for riches, power, and inner peace.

“There Will Be Blood” is a masterwork that touches upon many different subjects. However, it's mostly about Daniel Plainview, an extraordinary character. Plainview's determination is without limits. The spellbinding opening scene, stretching on for over ten minutes, is almost entirely without dialogue. After falling inside the tunnel he dug himself, Plainview drags himself to the surface and into town. This is just one example of how far Plainview will go to succeed. Except Daniel's riches don't make him happy. Instead, it only exacerbates the hate for mankind he already feels. “There Will Be Blood” seems to detail a man's withdrawal into complete misanthropy. Yet it's also deeply enigmatic, raising questions about whether or not Plainview ever had anything but complete disgust for his fellow man.

Daniel Plainview gives probably the most mesmerizing performance of the 2000s. Daniel Day Lewis creates a voice for the character that was immediately a target for parody. Not because it's goofy but because it was so utterly distinctive. Plainview's voice is a gruff bellow, each word carefully chosen. From there, Lewis builds an impressive physicality around the character. Lewis' emphasizes the total discomfort Daniel feels around other people with small, barely noticeable movements. Yet these more subtle touches are in service of an operatic performance. More than once, Lewis reaches for the rafters, screaming, shouting and acting like a complete madman. Because this is such a carefully created character, these elements never come off as hammy or overdone. Instead, Plainview is made into an intimidating, hypnotic masterclass of acting.

“There Will Be Blood” can, perhaps, best be summed up as being about a fight between the two most abused powers in American history: Religion and business. Plainview, in many ways, represents everything wicked about American capitalism. His initial plan is to cheat the Sunday family out of million, planning on buying their ranch without mentioning the oil underneath it. He is ruthless against his adversaries, mocking them in public. He pays more attention to the burning oil well than his injured child. Eli Sunday, meanwhile, sums up everything deceitful about evangelical Christianity. He uses his theatrical skills as a preacher to manipulate his followers. He is just as greedy as Plainview but he hides his greed behind a virtuous public face. Later, he attempts to humiliate Plainview before a crowded church. Both men are totally self-interested. It's up to the viewer to decide which one is worst.

Plainview's son, H.W., provides much of the ambiguity surrounding the character. Does Daniel Plainview actually love H.W.? When he first adopts the boy, he uses him as a cynical marketing technique. With his son by his side, he projects the image of a family man, someone clients can trust with their money. Plainview admits this in the film's final third, disowning the boy. Yet there are other moments that make you wonder. He's affectionate towards the child at time. After H.W. is rendered deaf by an exploding oil platform, Plainview genuinely attempts to communicate with him. Attacking his son seems to be the only thing that actually infuriates him. At the same time, he ships the boy off so he doesn't have to deal with him. An action he seems to feel genuine guilt for. Did Plainview's growing cynicism cause him to disown his boy? Or did he never feel anything towards H.W.? Once again, Anderson's film leaves it up to the viewer to decide.

Family is a re-occuring theme throughout the film. Midway through the movie, a man appears on Plainview's property, claiming to be his long-lost brother. Plainview is skeptical at first but, eventually, seems to form something of a kinship with him. The two even share a swim together. Which is the same moment Daniel realizes the man is a fraud. His reaction seems to suggest that the world constantly disappointing him is what truly drives Plainview towards total misanthropy. At least it would, if he didn't deliver a spellbinding monologue earlier about how he sees the rest of humanity as competition, barely concealing the clear disgust he feels. In time, he sees family as a weight around his neck, something holding him back from the pure isolation he craves.

Paul Dano plays Eli Sunday. Standing up against Daniel Day Lewis' performance as Plainview must have been intimidating. Dano never attempts to out-act Lewis. Instead, he plays Eli as a despicable, squabbling little worm. He strikes the viewer as physically weak. Whenever he raises his voice, it only draws attention to how effete and unassuming Dano seems. This makes him the perfect foil to Lewis' Plainview. The two are similar, two men who put on public persona to swindle people out of money, except for one important detail: Daniel Plainview may feel only hate for the human race but at least he's not self-righteous. Dano plays Eli Sunday as a man who buys his own bullshit, who truly believes he's a prophet of God even if his behavior says otherwise.

The supporting cast has fewer familiar faces in it. Recognizable Ciaran Hinds appears as Fletcher, a business associate of Plainview's. Kevin J. O'Connor plays Henry Plainview, Daniel's imposter brother. O'Connor is soft-spoken, despite the obvious shifty qualities he brings to the part, making him seem possibly innocent even after Daniel uncovers his deception. Yet the unfamiliar names in the supporting cast prove more impressive. Dillon Freasier plays H.W. as a boy. Freasier's quiet intensity, that almost seems inhuman, matches the tone of the film perfectly. After loosing his hearing, Freasier plays H.W. as even more distant from his father. Russell Harvard plays H.W. as an adult. Though his part is brief, he makes an impression, showing the hurt and frustration that must follow being Daniel Plainview's son.

In “Punch-Drunk Love,” Paul Thomas Anderson brought a previously unseen level of stillness to his usually frenetic direction. This attribute is pushed even further in “There Will Be Blood.” Anderson's trademark long shots seem to linger on individual images more. Such as Plainview observing his burning oil well or brooding in a stairway. Or a quiet moment of Plainview and a baby H.W. watching each other on a train. Some times, Anderson's camera seems glued to Plainview's intensity. Such as the trailer-worthy moment where he declares he's “abandoned his boy,” in front of a busy church. Anderson marries his focused, still images to an extra-wide, theatrical visual palette. “There Will Be Blood” is visually similar to the sweeping, technicolor epics of the forties and fifties. This contrasts nicely against its morally gray themes.

“There Will Be Blood's” title makes a promise. The film is not especially violent, as far as these things go. Yet the violence is always treated with an undeniable ferocity. The audience feels the impact of Plainview's fall in the opening scene. When a loose pipe impales a worker inside an oil well, the blow is sudden and startling. H.W. being blown back by the exploding oil well is similarly harrowing. Yet Anderson's saves the most shocking moment for the fierce conclusion. The final confrontation between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, playing out over his personal bowling alley, is one of the most intense conclusion to appear in a recent film. Lewis' performance rages on like an angry god as Plainview destroys his archenemy, removing any reason for him to keep living.

For “There Will Be Blood,” Anderson would split from his usual composer, Jon Brion, and pair with Johnny Greenwood, perhaps better known as the guitarist for Radiohead. Greenwood's powerful, strange, ominous music is one of the reasons why “There Will Be Blood” is so good. The score is characterized by throbbing, growling, deep strings, casting a disturbing mood. There's a constant, uneasy energy, powered by plucking notes and frantic strings to the music. This is best emphasized during the oil rig explosion scene, where Greenwood's music clatters forward wildly, discordant noise building atop a thrashing, unending beat. Even the quieter moments are awash in nervous repetition. It's not exactly easy listening but it perfectly matches the film, making it better.

The immediate influence “There Will Be Blood” had on pop culture can be seen in how many references it spawned. “I drink your milkshake!” “Drainage!” “I've abandoned my boy!” and a few other lines of dialogue would become internet memes, referenced and parodied all throughout pop culture. Daniel Plainview took his place among iconic film characters. Of course, Day Lewis won the Oscar and every other award he was nominated for. All of Paul Thomas Anderson's films are varying degrees of great but “There Will Be Blood” feels like an honest-to-God cinematic experience, a powerhouse of a movie that overwhelms and lingers in the brain. [Grade: A]

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