Monday 15 December 2008

There Will Be Blood

Placed in many critic's 'Top Ten' lists this year, Paul Thomas Anderson's 'There Will Be Blood' is unsurprisingly mammoth viewing (for those who have watched any of his other films). Tackling not only America's drink of choice, oil, but its sustenance too in religion, it is a big bold film with a big performance at its centre. Anderson's work certainly has the ability to divide people. I know equal numbers of people who would describe 'Magnolia' as either bona fide genius or self-indulgent tosh, and even those who loved 'Boogie Nights' couldn't fail to notice that it was very, very long (pun intended) with an ending that spiralled away. What you can't deny is that he has vision and confidence, two qualities which are essential when attempting to make the kind of epic masterpiece Anderson clearly wants this to be

The opening section of the film contains no speech, we simply watch as Daniel Plainview toils at the bottom of a shaft prospecting for silver. We know that this is a determined man when he breaks his leg in a fall and literally drags himself and a rock sample into town to be tested. This determination will develop into ruthlessness as he builds himself into an oil man. When an accident kills one of his workmen he takes on the responsibility of his orphaned child, using him to develop the persona of family man when delivering his spiel to those whose land he wants to buy. Daniel Day-Lewis is never less than watchable, often compelling, and his performance completely dominates the film. He chews up the script, the voice (his starting point when developing the character) a rough drawl from another era, his eyes permanently squinting into the harsh sunlight and his skin always looks filthy; the dirt and oil so deep in his pores that in one section of the film, when he bathes in the sea, he looks almost absurdly naked.

He is approached by Paul Sunday with information about a possible place to drill for oil. Under the guise of a quail hunt he and his boy, HW, find oil seeping to the surface and he offers to buy the Sunday ranch. It is Paul's brother, Eli, who steps into the negotiation to ensure that his father isn't ripped off and it is he, as a preacher and faith healer, who allows Anderson to develop his other major theme. These two men become locked in a battle of wills, each proclaiming to have the interests of the community at heart, each feeling that he is able to see to the centre of the other and the resounding hollow within. Paul Dano as Eli has a tough task opposite Day-Lewis. I understand that he was originally hired to play only the small role of Paul. Replacing the original actor in the role of Eli gave him only a few days to prepare and faced with the presence of Day-Lewis it frequently dissolves into a shouting match. Advice to all young actors: You cannot beat Daniel Day-Lewis in a shouting match.

The really interesting relationship is between Plainview and HW. The burden of responsibility is something which Plainview finds he isn't up to, especially when that responsibility becomes a burden. Unfortunately it is a thread which isn't given the time it deserves and the cursory summation of that storyline in the coda at the end of the film isn't enough to do it justice. In fact the final section of the film is the major problem with it. Not only does it add little to the story, apart from a neater ending, but it actually risks destroying everything that has come before it. Anderson's films and Day-Lewis' performances are a bit like an expanding soap bubble. The bigger it gets the more amazing it is, you almost can't believe it's so big, and then there comes a point where you can't sustain it any more, the surface tension collapses and it all falls apart. By returning to the story twenty odd years further on we see Plainview installed in the house he had always wished for, having earned enough money to be apart from others whom he hates, vast empty halls, two unused bowling lanes, and at its centre the dejected and alcoholic oil man. This is the point at which the performance becomes too much (and I'm a man who can suspend his disbelief with the best of them), the final exchanges pitched so high they risk just being funny, especially with Dano's attempts to keep up.

Anderson decided not to call the film 'Oil!', after the Upton Sinclair novel it's based on, because there was 'not enough of the book' in it. Unfortunately there isn't enough anything in it to support some of the loftier claims made for this film. A ruthless oilman doesn't tell us anything we don't already know, and the chink in his armour that could have made for a more interesting story isn't given enough time on screen. There is lots to admire in this film, Jonny Greenwood's score for example is original, slightly at odds with the period, but absolutely in tune with the atmosphere, and the bleached out cinematography makes a fine feature of the arid landscape. I did actually like it, but don't expect it to tell you anything. Like its central character there is a hollowness at its centre, and if he doesn't learn anything from his journey then what do we?


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