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Another Gusher

A Different Take on the Greatness of There Will Be Blood

In Bold Blood: Paul Thomas Anderson (right) directs Daniel Day-Lewis in his latest ambitious project.

By Evan Guilfoyle | Posted 1/9/2008

Let me state this plainly: There is no stronger entry for the Best American Movie of 2007 than Paul Thomas Anderson’s showy, jagged, complex There Will Be Blood. The critical darling No Country For Old Men shares many of the same Old Testament concerns--greed, wisdom, vanity, betrayal, etc.--yet its triumphs are as much to do with Cormac McCarthy’s mournful source novel as they are to do with the Coen Brothers finally growing up. Ultimately, it is never more than the sum of its admittedly great ingredients. David Fincher’s Zodiac is as exacting a procedural as the crime genre will ever see--outdoing HBO’s The Wire in sheer meticulousness--yet it somehow misses the cathartic mark. Even if Fincher’s intentions were to leave first-time viewers with the bad taste of an unsolved mystery, Zodiac is too caught up and self-impressed with its own carefully crafted web of minutiae, even as it subtly solves the crime and fingers the culprit--albeit only cinematically, of course.

Blood is a horse of a different color: starring first-class scenery-chewer Daniel Day-Lewis, it is a defiantly vague character study that never bothers to explain the main character's motivations, and it is oddly structured and weirdly paced by Anderson, one of the better students of cinematic balance. This horror film, disguised as a period piece, draws strength as much from Johnny Greenwood’s dissonant string-laden score as it does from its actors, technical acumen, and directorial prowess. Blood is a stylistic tightrope walk that Anderson could not have balanced without making the unabashedly earnest Punch-Drunk Love first. His freewheeling camera now glides with the assurance of a steady-handed singular master, not a neophyte approximating Martin Scorsese’s derring-do. Blood is dedicated to Anderson’s mentor Robert Altman, whose death has freed Anderson to pursue making “pure cinema,” more in the direction of Terrence Malick or David Lean than an Orson Welles masterpiece.

Blood starts off with a series of wordless scenes of Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview mining by his lonesome. He falls down his mine and breaks his leg, yet has the wherewithal and presence of mind to grab his recent findings as he prepares to climb out and drag himself across miles of rocky terrain to town. This sequence and his subsequent adoption of a fallen worker’s son breathlessly set up the troubling disparity between Plainview’s reaching ambition and his human grasp, both of which assign him to abject loneliness by the movie’s end.

It is easy to break Blood down into scenes and describe how the plot and characters serve the gargantuan biblical themes that Anderson is ably addressing here, but it is much more difficult to grasp the movie’s tone. Where No Country was basically a sheriff’s wistful look at how coded rural values were blindsided by the merciless international drug trade--all while maintaining the consistent pace and tone of a great thriller--Blood doesn’t care to be coded by any genre definitions or expectations. It doesn’t even have a drummer to march to. When the gothic title comes up accompanied by stirring violins, there isn’t a moment in the movie that doesn’t leave you anticipating just how much blood will be spilled. The dynamic showmanship disguises the push-pull Anderson is getting away with in having a misanthrope as the lead character. He allows the audience to remain in awe and simultaneous disgust of Plainview and his dealings with others.

Blood’s main weakness is the lack of depth Anderson failed to write for Paul Dano’s evangelical-minded ladder-climber, Eli Sunday. While ambiguity is one of Blood’s strengths (and the aspect that will likely encourage repeat viewings), the one-dimensionality of Plainview’s antagonist draws unnecessary attention to Day-Lewis’ eight-cylinder performance, and the movie suffers as a result of this imbalance. In our current political and evangelical climate of George W. Bush and Mike Huckabee, it is too facile to wed a simple, turn-of-the-century, man of the cloth to Big Oil’s rise as the primary economic force undermining our national values.

By dedicating a Dano scene or two (without Day-Lewis) to determine if Sunday’s religious beliefs are genuinely held, this goes away. It certainly would give the talented Dano more to work with. As a result, Sunday’s greedy motivations are merely black and white. He feels undercooked and resorts to flailing away as a hysteric in his newly built church. Sometimes less truly is more, and Dano just doesn’t have the acting chops yet. Blood’s disgusted summation of the uneasy relationship between big business and religion still comes across easily, and does not suffer as a result of this character construction oversight.

There are similarities Blood shares with the other exemplary piece of 2007 movie acting: the humble character piece Margot at the Wedding. Starring Nicole Kidman, it is a sort of female yin to Plainview’s yang. Blood is a decidedly masculine movie that features a self-made, steak-eating, whiskey-drinking male monster and the kindness and ruthlessness he displays in equal measure, without a care for anyone’s reaction. Margot is a glimpse of a WASP-y woman trying to smile her way, with the aid of white wine and prescription drugs, through a self-prescribed separation/mental breakdown, while eviscerating her loved ones with a coldly distancing disdain. Ultimately, by Margot’s finale, she returns to her abandoned son and is redeemed by the open-ended love writer/director Noah Baumbach has for his characters.

Anderson doesn’t allow an easy out for Plainview. The depths of his unending callousness in the final scene with his now-deaf, adopted son are so hard to fathom, let alone sit through, and it calls into question what it really means to be a (business-) man in this modern society. The ambiguity of Day-Lewis’ closing line, “I’m finished,” hangs over every previous moment of Blood. He is now utterly alone in a prison of his own design.

Similarly to Stanley Kubrick’s misunderstood masterpiece Barry Lyndon, Anderson understands that tragedy is a dish best served cold. His first truly mature movie demonstrates that complicated idea effortlessly in ineffably cinematic terms, without a narrator or period songs or any other oft-used clichés. While flawed, There Will Be Blood is a genuine American original, and just like Daniel Plainview, it may not be loved or even liked by everyone, but it deserves and commands attention and respect. With luck, Blood may one day enter the sanctified pantheon of great movies of any stripe. The other great movies of this exceedingly wonderful year should be so lucky.

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Tags: there will be blood, paul thomas anderson

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