PSA: There Will Be Blood (2007), or Scornful Glances Across The Room

16 04 2009

Some performances will live as long as cinema still has the power to inspire and intrigue. Vivian Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai. These powerful characters are galvanized into our cinematic consciousness because they are larger than life and yet instantly understandable by every person. Great villains, tragic heroes, characters of quiet strength and unimaginable weakness; epic characters hewn from the struggles we all face as human beings, if perhaps on a slightly larger scale than we attribute to reality. It takes quite a collaboration between a strong writer, a competent director, and a skilled actor to bring something so intense before our eyes, but when it happens it can be nothing short of amazing. Today’s collaboration in There Will Be Blood of Paul Thomas Anderson (aka The Man) and veteran actor Daniel Day-Lewis produced the enigmatic role of Daniel Plainview, and I think that only time will tell just how breath-taking this character really is.

There Will Be Blood concerns the rise of silver miner turned oil prospector Daniel Plainview in the late 19th century. He is a self-made man of mysterious origins, and with the money he made digging up silver he builds a small oil derrick and hires a small crew. When one of his crew is killed, he takes his infant son as his own, naming him H.W.. The industry grows and grows over time, and Plainview becomes a modestly wealthy man in the oil business. But he wants more. One day, a quiet, mysterious young man named Paul Sunday comes to Plainview’s office claiming that his hometown of Little Boston is teeming with oil underneath the ground. Intrigued, Plainview buys the information from the kid and travels to the town with H.W.. Paul’s father owns a small farming property, and Daniel slyly sneaks the farm out from under them cheap with a pretense of wanting to hunt quail there. This bargain incenses Paul’s twin brother Eli, who is a local “faith healer” and head of the local Church of The Third Revelation. He thinks they should have been paid much more due to all the oil that is indeed under the ground. This sparks a rivalry between the two that lasts for years. As Plainview buys up more land and Eli collects more converts, the casualties of these two men’s greed will rise, and by the end of it all, there will be… well, you know the rest.

Character studies are among my favorite styles of storytelling. They rely on the one thing that all of us have, a personality, to tell the story of an individual’s life and times. This picture in particular is a very dense study of a man who is duplicitous by his very nature. Daniel Plainview is a complex character living in a complex time, a greedy and conniving oilman who uses his adopted son to push the good Christian family front of his business that so many people at that time adhered to. He is irreligious and does not believe in God, but pretends that he does so that he might procure favor for his industry. His life is one of conquering, a successive series of ever-expanding battles that serve no purpose but to fill the emptiness in his life. But what does conquering for the sake of conquering mean at the end of the day? Not even Plainview knows, but that doesn’t stop Daniel Day-Lewis from giving a career-defining performance by giving this dense character miles of motivation.

Day-Lewis plays hard and strong here, trying to keep up with a director who might just be a magician in disguise. I’ve always found that actors working for P.T. Anderson work harder than usual just trying to not look shameful in his shot. In There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis shows off his chops in full force, appearing like an unnatural force rather than a man. He gives Plainview the booming voice of a salesman, an authoritarian, a monster. His physical presence is also a little frightening. What really surprises me is how seeped in reality this character is. He could have very well existed in the West, preying on people’s infirm logic to take the oil right from under them. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Oscar for this performance, and it’s easy to see why.

Not to discount the other players. Paul Dano plays Paul/Eli Sunday, and he is a formidable foe to Plainview. He is a petulant fraud, a “faith healer” who can’t really heal anybody. But he holds enough sway in the community’s faithful to cause a commotion when he wants. Dano is a budding young actor who has made consistently powerful work, and he never fails to make his performances count. Little Dillon Freasier plays H.W., and for only his first film he performs better than I think anybody could have anticipated. He has to bear a lot of more mature feelings in this film, such as the desire to be accepted by a parent and the pain of abandonment, but he soldiers through it with a resolve belying his age.

The score is composed by Johnny Greenwood. THAT Johnny Greenwood. He makes something so sinister within the music that it runs through me whenever I hear it. It is the sound of internal tension, the aching notes of self-combustion. The first five silent minutes alone are breathtaking, thanks to Greenwood’s score. More soundtracks need a lick of chaos at their core. It might liven up the banality of most compositions nowadays.

A great movie, nearly flawless. If I were asked to point out a flaw, I would say there might be one or two meandering scenes along the way. On the other hand, who is looking for a flaw in such a near-perfect film? This period piece set in the long-forgotten age of America’s quest for domestic oil is a study of one man’s grimy, despicable desire, and the effects it has on everyone around him. It is wonderfully shot, impeccably well-acted, and is scored like no other film. Analysts will dissect this film in the near future and show it in classrooms all across the nation as an example to budding artists, in particular Daniel Day-Lewis’s standout portrayal of a man with a deep shadow over his head, but while the film is still fresh in the American consciousness and out of the textbooks, I give There Will Be Blood 9 1/2 Radiohead guitarists out of 10.

Tomorrow we take on the rough streets of L.A. with Colors, a reader recommendation!




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