Thursday, February 5, 2009
1898. A man picks at the stone in a deep well, alone, hoping to find silver. Eventually, he falls and breaks his leg and must save himself. Several years later, he runs a small team of drillers and has abandoned silver for oil. In 1911, he runs a fledgling empire. We move through these periods with little diegetic sound, as buzzing violins crescendo over the desert landscapes.
Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood announces a fascinating new direction for one of the most promising of America's modern directors. I admit that, beloved as Magnolia was, I found it a pretentious, rambling (and not in a fun or insightful way) mess that tried to mix Altman's style of film with Scorsese' type of filmmaking and ended up a hollow masturbatory exercise that called more attention to the camera itself than the objects it captured. However, Boogie Nights remains one of my favorite films, and I keep bumping Punch-Drunk Love farther and farther up my queue until it is, at last, on deck.
Why do I bring this up? Well, this is a blog, so it's only fitting I talk about meaningless personal business, but also because it gives me a certain sense of happiness knowing that, even if I detest Punch-Drunk, I know that PTA never lost it because I've seen this film. Of course, his prior filmography is totally irrelevant, because Anderson tosses out his ensemble casts and surreality in favor of a stark vastness that explores a man as insoluble as Iago, and almost as sinister. It's as if he threw out Altman for Kubrick.
And he succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. Anderson still has a certain Scorsesian restlessness with his camera, but he puts it to good use here, moving along the barren lands, zooming in and out, locking into place in moments of minimalistic beauty. With this camera he follows Daniel Plainview, the oil man we meet at the start. Daniel Day-Lewis offers up possibly the finest performance of his career in terms of thematic weight as Plainview (though I'd still side with his Christy Brown in My Left Foot for the sheer effort involved), all the more surprising when you consider how little depth the character has.
That lack of depth threw me a bit at first. I've loved the film ever since I first saw it, but I could never figure out Plainview. At last, after multiple viewings and endless research, I've finally learned that that's the point: Plainview is a man so emotionally guarded and self-absorbed that we are never meant to learn about him. In that respect, it shares more than a little with Citizen Kane, a comparison I've seen in a number of more glowing reviews; like Kane, Plainview forms the nucleus for the story, yet the audience does not and cannot learn all or even most there is to know about the man. Both are character studies whose characters are too complex to be truly studied.
For that reason, the film feels intensely claustrophobic despite its epic visuals. Many, including myself, have compared it to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: The Space Odyssey, from their use of terrifying glissandi violin movements over a vast setting with sparse dialogue. However, there's a fundamental difference between the two: Kubrick's film dealt, as most of his oeuvre did, with the loss of individuality. Kubrick always strove to reduce the individual to the nothingness he really was, and 2001 was his ultimate (and, funnily enough, his most sentimental) statement on the future of the individual: absorption into the universe and cold machinery, allowing man's evolution. There Will Be Blood, on the other hand, shows us a man who will not be swallowed whole by the space around him, a man who in fact comes to dominate that space.
Plainview regards everything around him as unworthy. Anderson captures the majesty around the character, but Daniel is always the dominant object in the frame. Endless films exist about self-centered anti-heroes, but here at last is true solipsism: if characters are standing damn near right next to Daniel they tend to stand at least slightly out of focus. This is Daniel's film, and it is why we learn so little. Precious few ever really move into focus (and thus into Plainview's limited consideration), and even then they do not always stay there. One is Daniel's son H.W.; when we first see him in adolescence, he stands behind his father in town meetings, seen but not heard, putting a pretty face on a "family business." When an accident at the derrick leaves the boy deaf, Daniel shows genuine compassion towards his son, even if he has even more difficulty showing it. Their relationship eventually crumbles in a flurry of cruelty, but the more I see the film the more I think it's Daniel's way of freeing his son.
Later in the film, a man shows up in the town Plainview has taken over claiming to be his half-brother Henry. After a few stories check out, Daniel surprisingly invites him into his fold, confiding in him more than any other character. In one particularly memorable scene (my favorite, as a matter of fact), Daniel gives us the closest thing we get to a breakthrough when he says to Henry "There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking. I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone...I see the worst in people. I don't need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I've built my hatreds up over the years, little by little, Henry... to have you here gives me a second breath. I can't keep doing this on my own with these... people." He's not a man who studied humanity and found nothing worth saving; he started there and moved on to other things. When he learns the truth about Henry, there's genuine pain in Daniel's eyes, not because he feels betrayed but because it means he'll have to remain amongst mortals.
But the most important supporting character is certainly Eli Sunday, played with gusto by Paul Dano. A young Pentecostal preacher, Eli, in a subtle but obvious way, ran the town before Daniel showed up looking for oil on a tip from Eli's twin Paul. Then Daniel shows up and promises the barren town prosperity, black gold and irrigated crops and new buildings, and he sells it all so beautifully I wanted to give him money. The townspeople look to Daniel and Eli as pillars, saviors even: Eli speaks in tongues and "heals" his parishioners, the spiritual savior. Daniel, on the other hand, will bring these people out of hardship through pure capitalism: through him at last comes the capacity to grow grain on their rocky soil and to rebuild rotting shanties into sturdy, beautiful buildings.
The two immediately enter into a battle of wits for supremacy, not of the town, but of the person who dares count himself as an equal. Eli, though certainly a believer, gains power from his status, to the point that I wondered if he considered himself to be the true vessel of the Lord. Daniel establishes his distaste for religion, and for the first time the townspeople have a choice, and it enrages Eli. Over the course of decades the two go about their back and forth: Daniel snubs Eli's offer to bless the well and ignores his initial promise of the $5,000 bonus for Eli's church, and Eli ultimately shames Daniel in front of the congregation. Finally the two reunite in the middle of the Depression, as a broken and bankrupt Eli comes to the still-affluent Daniel to beg for money, and the sadistic delight on Plainview's face is even more disturbing than his wheezing laugh following his speech to Henry.
Why, if this film has no real underlying point, is it so good? Yes, capitalism and religion are both touched upon, and it's possible to draw meaning from the both, but they're chiefly weapons Daniel and Eli use to infuriate one another: Eli exploits Daniel's money-grubbing by forcing him out of 10 grand at the start of the business venture, while Daniel resists any attempt to bring religion anywhere near him or his rig. Some have complained of a lack of female characters, but I agree with it actually; this is a film from Daniel's POV, and it only makes sense that a man so thoroughly cut off from everything would gladly cut out 50% of the world's population on the basis of some anatomical difference. There is one little girl, Mary, who in another film would have been almost central to the proceedings. We meet her when she's about H.W.'s age, and the two grow together, fall in love, and get married. Mary even learns sign language for her beau. But she gets relegated to the background, barely appearing and usually silent when she does turn up, because Daniel simply doesn't care about her.
Perhaps the reason I love the film so dearly is that it so thoroughly plays against type. People label it a Western, and that's not a ridiculous claim, but I find myself increasingly disagreeing with the term; traditional Westerns show us life as it was in the Old West, generally with some romantic, archetypal ideal attached, while revisionist Westerns tend to make some sort of claim about traditional Westerns, a deconstruction of the myth that shows us how life really was. This does neither; the craggy desert is simply a backdrop for a completely inexplicable man who moves through it with such contempt and disregard the setting melts away, and Johnny Greenwood's unsettling score cuts into the pure hatred within. We have anti-heroes and anti-villains. Meet Daniel Plainview: the anti-character.