Tuesday, February 26, 2008


Cast: Daniel-Day Lewis, Paul Dano, Dillon Freasier, Ciarán Hinds
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Rating: ***** (Masterpiece)
Runtime: 158 min.
Genre: Drama, Thriller

On most occasions when we pay the movies a visit, we’re looking for the best ride possible. Most times, movies probably are made keeping that very endeavor in mind. Howsoever we’re familiar with it, we’re never failed to be enthralled by that ride when done with a touch of class and novelty. It probably takes a genius to attract us away from that ride, and induce the realization out of us what a great experience inventing the wheel, all over again, could be. To make us experience what watching the movies all over again, afresh, could be. Paul Thomas Anderson is that sort of a genius, and in the relentlessness of There Will Be Blood, in its arduousness we’re exhilarated and drained. There’s intense richness of tragedy, of eccentricity, of obsession, of audacity, of performance, of filmmaking, of literature, of humor, and when we’ve moved on a bit far from this year into the future, we’ll learn there’s still more to be discovered.
I’m being absolutely plain here – I’m not one hundred percent sure on the wheel-ride metaphor and what I intend to say. It was late into midnight when the end credits started rolling, and here I was exhausted, reeling under the searing and sprawling intensity of the film. It was very necessary for me to step back and take a toll, and as I started gathering my thoughts this was what came to me, out of nowhere. It felt right, but why is not a question I’m in possession of an answer of. I decided to open my review with these random thoughts, as a testament what an artist Anderson is. He doesn’t create easy parables – one note films dealing in allegories that rarely have more than a single layer to them. He believes in, and creates stories – complex, intriguing – and never settles for any one emotional note, or any one character trait, or motion in any one direction. In There Will Be Blood he has unleashed a tornado hurling itself along with random fury, expanding in all directions – there is horror, there is satire, there’s screwball. It doesn’t give us any single moral to hold to; in its imperfections of tone, of pacing it is pure mania we feel. I’m not sure there’s another modern director who could boast of such cinematic flourish, and if there’re any I’m sure there aren’t many.
The film could be labeled a chronicle of the force of capitalism, of the unscrupulous ways of evangelism, of distrust, of families, of power. That would be describing the obvious about of the crust. If anything, it is a desperate attempt to claw and peel layers of a man, a force of nature, who has named himself Daniel Plainview. Apparently he has folks who are named Plainview too, and strange as it may seem, Daniel is at odds with his name. He is at odds with his fellowmen, with his family, with nature, with God, and I believe himself too. As much like the story, Anderson’s Plainview is anything but for plain view, a paradox and more than any modern movie character, he’s impossible to be described, and typified. It requires a level of greatness and the same unrelenting passion to humanize this misanthropic being, and there lay the one and only Daniel-Day Lewis. Rarely do two talents explode into each other with such fervor, and There Will Be Blood is one such film in a very, very long time. Let me paint you a brief sketch of the panorama.
It is 1898, and Plainview is all alone in that rough terrain digging for silver. For a good part of five minutes we see him wrestling with nature, slowly inching his way through the hole, against an ear numbing score with a shrilling intensity. We hear not one word, and it is haunting just like the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the beginning of the evolution of him, and probably an allegory to the birth of capitalism in that wilderness of Southern California. He’s all on his own, and when he breaks his leg badly in a fall through the hole, we hear the first word, rather the first cry – No! He exhales in the hole, and inhales, picks up himself, picks up the rock and crawls his way, all along the ground, back to the nearest shred of civilization.
Years later he turns to oil, and when he first digs that slimy fluid out of the ground he wipes his hand on and raises it, drenched in oil. The sequence would be at home in any horror picture, ready for unintentional laughs. But here, it is terrifyingly cold and rings an ominous sign of things to come. It is fifteen minutes into the film when we first hear the man speak a full sentence. It is a strange slimy voice, a snarl here and a grunt there, a monster twirling its nose to breathe fire. It speaks with an authority borne out of the unabashed belief in ones deceitful ways. So confident it probably believes in its own deceit. He has his child H.W. Plainview alongwith him, whom he uses, it only seems, more for his little-boy sweetness than anything else. H.W. has been almost baptized in oil, and practically the first word he must have learnt is oil. Yet, I believe Daniel loves his little boy, and immensely so. There is a wealth of information how Daniel treats his young son, and it is never quite sure if he’s putting a charade or if it is genuine affection. As with much of the film, it is take-a-pick contest, with us having the fortune of quite a number of options. But more than any Michael Corleone, this man is headstrong, and there’s nothing out there that he believes is worthy enough to compete with him. Not man, not nature, not life, not God. Nothing is worthy enough to earn his respect, hell he despises everything and bends before nothing.
Enter Paul Sunday (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine) who walks upto Daniel and tells him about his town that literally has oil seeping out of the ground, the cause being a recent earthquake. Daniel and his son walk up to their ranch, the Sunday Ranch, and place a bid to buy them, and buy all of the lands of the village. Here, in the Sunday ranch lay a confusion of sorts, rising out of a last minute casting problem, as a result of which Paul’s brother Eli is again played by Dano. Eli is the smooth voice of evangelism and it is his desire to extract money out of Plainview and further the plan to spread his Church of the Third Revelation. As much as one ought to dread the slimy voice of capitalism, the viciousness of the smooth voice is an able adversary. Partners in crime, but adversaries nevertheless. Plainview though, doesn’t think much of him either.
We call a character Shakespearean when he starts showing realizations of his tragic existence, thereby opening the window of transformation towards repentance and good. We do not necessarily like these characters, but we do not hate them either; we plain feel sorry for them. Jake la Motta in Raging Bull comes to mind. Plainview has nothing to do with any of those clichés, if any attempts were made to reduce him to words, would be the monster in one of those teen slasher horror pictures. An unremitting force. I use cliché not in the cinematic sense, but in the sense of describing the common man, for La Motta in the end is what could be described a common loser. Plainview is what Michael Corleone was in The Godfather, and to a certain extent the sequel. I cannot admire Anderson and Lewis enough here to go the full distance, pull out all the stops, on Plainview and keeping him the way he is. Plainview wouldn’t budge before anybody and that would include his inner voice. The greatest of performances work in paradoxes, not providing us any easy inferences, open to be comprehended. This is right up there with the very best, and when I say this is Daniel-Day Lewis’ finest hour that sure is saying something. Kathleen Murphy, of all the futile attempts I’ve read to sum Plainview, does the best job –
The key to character and performance in "TWBB" comes in Plainview's query: "Can everything around here be got?" The answer is pretty much yes. Day-Lewis chews scenery in "Blood" because he's incarnating a monster bent on eating up as much of the world/movie as he can. "I have a competition in me," he shares almost clinically -- and that's the engine that makes his wheels turn. He hardly knows how to act naturally, with his brother or anyone else.
Probably a human monster, or a monster-human. Take your pick. (Kindly visit this debate on Daniel-Day Lewis’ performance between two of the more esteemed scholars on film – Kathleen Murphy and Jim Emerson - http://movies.msn.com/movies/oscars2008/DanielDayLewis)
The filmmaking is of the highest order possible. I believe Anderson never looks at perfecting his films as a whole; rather he goes for achieving a life for every single sequence. There is never a fixed tone to the film, and even through its single-minded doggedness it strives to create an atmosphere of emotion perfect with the concerned sequence. As Martin Scorsese calls it, it is the kamikaze method of directing going for absolute broke. The score has no emotional trappings. Composer Jonny Greenwood supplies a stark combination of western and horror, but that goes only for sometimes. The score is almost never formulaic, in that it is never in a state of agreement with the emotional tone of a scene, never, not even for a single moment, supplying us with a clue as what to feel of it.
Look at how Anderson creates and scores an oil fire sequence in the middle of the film. There’s nothing traditional to it, and the scene at once feels like an eerie combination of a war and disaster. It is spectacular, it is grand but it also pulls us right into it. No shaky camera can achieve that, and it is the sheer genius of Anderson how he manages to enthrall us with the epic scope of the greatest of old time war films, and bludgeon us with the grit of the newer ones. All in the span of one scene.
I’m not sure under what genre to classify the film, and I’ve only done it as an obligation looking at IMDb. Strange and astonishing surely come to mind. If someone would walk up to me and say this is a half-horror picture, I would have no reason to disagree, and in the ending few minutes there’s the same screwball insanity of any standard B-grade horror fare. I’m sure many are livid at the ending, but everyone would agree it is just as a thunder as the rest of the film. There aren’t any women in this world, and I’m not sure what to make of that. For that matter, I’m not sure what to make of Daniel Plainview. I seem to have observed him enough, but with my limited intellect I am not sure I’m any closer to understanding the person, and I’m sure neither is the film. We know him, and his madness, but we almost never know what to expect of him. He seems to have destroyed everything that did have any connection to him for all he needs, it seems, is a prop upon which he could rest the scarce emotions of the day. With all his power at his disposal, brought about by his immense wealth, I think this was what he was looking for in his life. Destroy everything that has had, at any point of time, committed any speck of offence to him. Physically destroy.
And in the end he utters these words to his butler – I’m finished. He has just finished his meal, killing a man, and has seemingly clubbed out of existence his adversaries. Just like the rest of the film, I’m not sure what to infer from that. It isn’t ambiguous like more standard fare, but it has seems to have so many layers to it. It is a great line to end on, and I’ll probably go with the meal, and would like to think he is up and ready to stamp the next challenge – God.
If that is how one chooses to look at it.


Anonymous said...

“The score is almost never formulaic, in that it is never in a state of agreement with the emotional tone of a scene, never, not even for a single moment, supplying us with a clue as what to feel of it.”

I completely agree with that…

In the oil fire scene I was actually confused as to what exactly Plainview was feeling… On one side…hes got the oil….while on the other side his son is injured…and the score didn’t help me much to figure that out…

Samir Ashok Ballal

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

Susanne Bier's Efter brylluppet(After the Wedding) is a great movie. For me, Drama at it's best.After Inarritu , Bier is a filmmaker to look for.She is great and makes compelling dramas.This movie is even better than Things We Lost in Fire.I said so since this one has a story to die for, great camera work and great performances too.I know some people have problem with hand-held camera but movies like this prove it can be put to great use if not overused.This film isn't without it's flaws but it sure is refreshingly brilliant filmmaking to say the least.

patrick said...

finally got to see the infamous There Will Be Blood... Daniel-Day Lewis' performance was top-notch. He takes well to the overbearing, violent father-figure role -- he also did this in Gangs of New York.

Anonymous said...

Daniel PlainView is one of the most brilliant characters I have seen on screen. He is so random and incomprehensible. The fun in watching this movie is deciphering Daniel Plainview. Personally, I like unpredictable people. It is so much fun trying understand them. But Daniel Plainview is one step ahead. He is unpredictable and more. An explosion as you say.

But along with Daniel Day lewis, I found Paul Dano equally brilliant in the movie.


man in the iron mask said...

@ Aravind
That is why I wonder.
Is he random and incomprehensible, because he is those, or is it because he consciously strives to be those.

I think he is the latter. A man, a force of nature, who is house to a thousand forces struggling with each other. I guess that is why he is a paradox.

Paul Dano was brilliant, brilliant, and I wish he was one of the nominees for Supporting actor in place of, say, Hal Brooks. One required a slimy force to stand up to Plainview, and nobody could have done it any better than what Dano did. I think we have a very promising actor on our hands in him. One for the future.

Satish Naidu

Anonymous said...

I feel the continuously striving to be incomprehensible may be a more suitable answer. You might remember the scene where he tells his brother that he wants to earn a lot of money and move away from everybody. The unpredictability and incomprehensibility might just be an attempt to move away from people.

I saw 3.10 to Yuma this week. I felt that it ended more romantically than it started out to be. Performances were brilliant.


man in the iron mask said...

The way I see it, Plainview does have the weakness (goodness) of the average Joe, but he is also filled with the viscous ocean of hate within him. He needs a prop upon which to hang himself at the end of the day. That is a weakness, you know, because we all seem to need one or the other person to share our life with. The day we overcome that, we might be the superhero (evolved being) we spoke of many days before.

Atrisa said...

I have never seen DDL as scary as he did in the last scene. Ooh I don't wanna taste that milkshake :P