Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Films of Paul Thomas Anderson: There Will Be Blood (2007)

There Will Be Blood (2007)
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson.
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson based on the novel by Upton Sinclair.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis (Daniel Plainview), Paul Dano (Paul Sunday / Eli Sunday), Dillon Freasier (HW), CiarĂ¡n Hinds (Fletcher), Sydney McCallister (Mary Sunday), David Willis (Abel Sunday), Kevin J. O'Connor (Henry), David Warshofsky (H.M. Tilford), Hans Howes (Bandy), Robert Hills (HW's Interpreter), Russell Harvard (Adult HW).

In many movies, a character like Daniel Plainview would be viewed as a hero – the personification of the American Dream. He comes from nothing – when we first see him, in a brilliant 15 minute opening sequence, where he doesn’t say a word (he does grunt), he is by himself in a mine trying to find silver – working by himself, non-stop until he finds what he’s looking for. Even after an accident, where he breaks his leg, he doesn’t give up. He simply drags himself to the claims office so he can ensure that the mine he found, is all his. The film then jumps forward a few years – now he has some more money, some more employees, and he is no longer mining for minerals – he’s searching for oil. They find a well, they dig in deep, there are more accidents – there are deaths – but he keeps on going. When one of his men is killed – leaving behind his infant son, Plainview takes him in and raises the child himself, as a single parent. We then jump ahead another 10 years, and Plainview is now clearly rich. He goes to places where there may be oil, and makes his pitch – using that same child as part of it. He wants people to see him as a family man, and therefore not just another greedy company. He is successful – he comes from nothing, and makes himself into a very rich man. That is what America is supposed to be about, right? If you work hard, you can make yourself into a success.

But Plainview is not the hero of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. He is a man driven almost purely by greed – and his hatred for other people. It’s not enough for Plainview to succeed, he needs to see other people fail. He is most comfortable when he is by himself, or with one of the few people he actually trusts (there are only two in the film he does, both of whom “betray” him in one way or another).

The film takes place over  30 year period, from the late 1800s, right up to the dawn of the Great Depression. The film is an indictment of the corruption inherent in capitalism – one of the pillars that America was founded upon – and when it introduces another character, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), a soft spoken preacher who becomes fire and brimstone while preaching (while being as greedy as Plainview in private) and sees that as equally corrupt as capitalism – while at the same time being no match for it.

This was the most ambitious film that Anderson had made up to this point in his career. He casts the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis as Plainview, and in an Oscar winning performance, Day-Lewis makes Plainview into one of cinemas most memorable characters – a petty, greedy man who wields his power like a hammer. When Eli challenges Plainview, it would have been easier for Plainview to simply let Eli have his little victories – but Plainview cannot bring himself to do that. He picks a useless war with him. Eli is no threat to Plainview – not a real one anyway – but it doesn’t matter. Plainview does not want anyone else to have a piece of what he has.

I do think that Plainview legitimately loves two characters in the movie – at least at one point. He does love his adopted son H.W., who literally becomes a silent witness to Plainview’s greed throughout the course of the movie, and knows him better than he knows himself. Yes, he uses H.W. as a prop – as a means to an end to make money – but there is legitimate love there, until H.W. “betrays” Plainview, through no fault of his own. Plainview also loves his long lost brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor), who shows up with a story, and who Plainview immediately takes into his confidence – hoping that he has found a kindred spirit (they do, after all, share the same blood). The scene by the fire, where Daniel confides in Henry exactly what he believes, and how he sees everyone else, is brilliant in misanthropy, and the only real time Plainview lays it bare. Of course, Henry will also “betray” Plainview – leaving him a lonely, bitter, violent man – which sets up the finale scene, where even though Plainview has won, he feels the need to go even farther.

There Will Be Blood has earned some comparisons to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane – widely considered the best film ever made, and another film about the American Dream become a nightmare. But there is a difference between the two films – and its key. While Charles Foster Kane came from nothing, he inherits his fortune, that he uses and abuses. Daniel Plainview is a self-made man – the pure embodiment of what America is supposed to be – and his fall is even farther the Kane`s. This is a dark vision of America`s past – and it`s one that hasn’t much changed. It is also brilliantly well made by Anderson – with great cinematography by Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar), which portrays the oil fields as hell – the numerous fires in the film are meant to evoke this, and are brilliantly photographed as anything since Terrence Malick’s similar scenes at the climax of Days of Heaven. Jonny Greenwood’s unique score helps in this regard as well – an industrial sound that is somehow both modern, and yet appropriate for a period piece.

There Will Be Blood is a tough film – it’s a dark film from the start, and one that gets darker as it goes long, ending in bombast and blood – which is probably the only way it could end. It is a big film – Anderson does nothing halfway, and neither does Day-Lewis, who has never been better than he is – his performance gets “bigger” as it moves along, but it never feels phony. The film ends where it must. It is one of the best films ever made.

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