Paul Thomas Anderson‘s There Will Be Blood is one of those legendary, go-for-broke, fiercely psychological big-canvas art movies that you need to see twice — the first time to go “whoa!” and recoil and get all shaken up and bothered about, and the second time so you can reconsider and see what a masterwork it is, despite your feelings about the malignant emotional content. If you’re a film maven of any kind you can’t let your piddly emotions get in the way of recognizing diseased greatness.
Daniel Day Lewis‘s portrayal of the remarkable Daniel Plainview — a driven, increasingly manic and misanthropic oilman who builds an empire in the early 20th Century — is historic. It’s one of the most riveting and demonically possessed performances ever put to film — more feverish than any monster played by Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi — and yet human and vulnerable-seem- ing enough to stir a certain recognition. He’s playing John Huston, after all, by way of Noah Cross. Or is it vice versa?.
Plainvew is a Count Dracula who spews oil rather than sucks blood. He’s starts out as a hard-working miner, then a tough businessman, then a religion-hating misanthrope, then a father who abandons his son, and finally a full-out fiend.
Lewis has a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the bag, of course, but the moral matter of what he and Anderson have brought into the world may give pause to some.
I’m imagining Anderson and Lewis holding a miniature infant version of Daniel Plainview in baby blankets, fresh out of the womb and wet with afterbirth and yet adultly proportioned (as he is in the film), and saying to us all, “Come see our child! He’s a monster, no question, but he came from our ribs and our souls and we love him…God help us but we do. We realize you can’t love him — he’s not constructed that way — but can you respect him at least? Can you at least see that he’s where some of us — perhaps more than a few of us — have come from? Or is a person that, God help us, some of us may actually be?”
No one in the world will argue that the musical score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood isn’t a major mind-bender. It’s boldly intrusive, brassy and manic, pushy, crazy-man symphonic. It expresses Plainview’s psychological state, of course, but it’s also a character unto itself. It keeps saying “listen to me…no, no, listen to me!” And you do, and you can’t help but think and think about it afterward. It’s a guaranteed Oscar nominee.
I really don’t know what to say about Blood‘s chances of being Oscar-nominated for Best Film, or Anderson’s for Best Film or Adapted Screenplay (based as it is on Upton Sinclair‘s “Oil!”). My first reaction was that it’s too cold for the Academy types to embrace it, but I’m starting to wonder. I really don’t know if my first reac- tion is the one to trust or the reaction I’m feeling now, having seen it a second time last night at San Francisco’s Castro theatre with a huge crowd, and admired it all the more.
“Does it have a chance of being named Best Picture by a critics group?,” I wrote a week and a half ago. “Conceivably. Does it have a chance in hell of being nominated for Best Picture by the Academy? I really doubt this. A film this black and misanthropic has never played with the Academy. Compared to Anderson’s film, No County for Old Men is a fairly gentle and kind-hearted thing, at least in terms of Tommy Lee Jones‘ lawman character.
I was wowed but mixed after seeing There Will Be Blood on 10.25. There was no question I’d just seen a masterfully well-honed psychodrama about a two-pronged figure — a snarly, self-made oil tycoon and a creature from the black lagoon — in early 20th Century California.
I also knew this was a powerfully convincing portrait of what a rough, backbreaking thing it was to get oil out of the ground 80 and 90 years ago, and a seriously strange but fascinating look at the primal influences of big oil and evangelical Christianity — religions that obviously still prosper today.
It was also clear there was a strong, somewhat plagued psychological engine at its center. I’m speaking principally of Anderson’s sardonic, dark-leaning world view (portions of Punch Drunk Love aside) and, I strongly suspect, his feelings about his late father, big-time announcer Ernie Anderson, who was allegedly a fierce personality with very dark leanings himself.
People are going to be talking about There Will Be Blood‘s closing line — “I’m finished” — for a long time to come. As well as those first 15 or 20 minutes of dialogue-free story-telling and atmosphere absorption. It’s obviously a work of a first-rate filmmaker delivering a very high-end art epic, at times stunningly so.
There is nothing but realism in There Will be Blood — there isn’t a fake line or moment in the entire 2 hours and 38 minutes — but it’s also an embodiment of a very creepy psychology. Black as night, black as oil, blacker than the bottom of a sealed-up well. My girlfriend hated it. The thought occured to me during the first screening that it’s probably going to make as much as The Assassination of Jesse James…if that.
I respect this film enormously. I admire each and every part. But it leaves you with nothing but the taste of bile in your mouth at the end. Bile and ashes that you want to spit on the pavement as you’re heading out to the parking lot, and at the same time you want to keep with you because they came from a strong and penetrating film.
The day after first seeing it I wrote that Anderson “has a heart of darkness inside him that would make Joseph Conrad tremble and turn pale. I don’t know anything, but There Will Be Blood doesn’t seem like a movie for audiences to watch and delight in as much as a therapy session for Paul to work out his rage and anger at Ernie.”
Lewis’s “Bill the Butcher” in Gangs of New York was a grand guignol psychopath, but Plainview is even more diseased as he lets no light in whatsoever. No gentleness, humor or warmth (except for the love he shows his young adopted son during the first hour). A shrewd survivor, but consumed by utter greed and calculation. A man looking for love and loyalty, and yet ready to kill or abandon those he feels have betrayed him or let him down. Not a character as much as a kind of demonic force of nature.
A week and a half ago I wrote “there is no way — no way in hell — that rank-and-file Academy members are going to embrace this performance, forceful and amazingly intense as it is, enough for Lewis to win. I support his being nominated because I know what great acting is, but no way in hell does he win. Forget it.” Now I don’t know. Last night’s viewing turned me around somewhat. I feel less emotional and more sure of the greatness at work here.
Castro Theatre marquee — Monday, 11.5.07, 6:50 pm
Within its own heavily male, oil-soaked, organized religion-hating, misanthropic realm, There Will Be Blood is brilliant.
But (and I’m talking about the first viewing, not the second) it’s about as hateful as a quality film can be — hateful in that there’s no one to care about except for the young son (and his adult incarnation at the end), and not that much to think about. Most women viewers will probably despise it, and yet it’s easily one of the year’s best made films.
I haven’t mentioned the fall-on-your-knees quality of Robert Elswit‘s widescreen cinematography or Jack Fisk’s production design. I’ll get into the other fine performances by Paul Dano, Ciaran Hinds, Dillon Freasier and Kevin J. O’Connor down the road. It’s primarily a Lewis show from start to finish, and it’s hard to focus elsewhere for the time being.
Anderson is saying, I think, “Don’t let yourself be like this guy….but if you are like this guy, don’t turn to religion to cure your ills because God is a foolish superstition, and religions are run by money-grubbing hypocrites.”
There Will Be Blood is a cautionary tale — beware of the Daniel Plainviews in your life, and the ones living inside you. Is it worth two hours and 38 minutes of experiencing a seething misanthropic cauldron to absorb this message? Yes, it’s worth it…definitely. It passes along a kind of insanity, but it does so with absolute greatness.