Thursday, November 6, 2008

There Will Be Blood

For the first fourteen minutes and twenty seconds of "There Will Be Blood," Daniel Plainview doesn’t say a single word. And yet I've rarely been more fascinated with a character. Without a single line of dialogue, actor Daniel Day Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson invoke an intimately powerful connection with the protagonist that is as disturbing and mysterious as our own subconscious. Anderson’s thrown convention out the window – even his own. Gone is the engrossing dialogue that characterized his works like “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” or the hilarious non sequitur of “Punch Drunk Love.”

If a filmmaker wants to transport you into another time, he has several tricks up his sleeve. Hollywood has created all kinds of ready-made formulas. Think of the grand costumes of “Gone With the Wind,” the hokey pageantry of an old-west shoot-em-up like “Rio Grande,” or even the colorful colloquialisms of “O! Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Yet somewhere in our DNA lives the memory of that past, the hardships, the putrid fears, the primal hatreds that we’ve carried down through the years – a shared memory that transcends all of Hollywood’s tired clichés. And I’ve never actually believed that until I heard Daniel Day Lewis’s opening lines of the film, “Ladies and gentleman, if I say I’m an oil man, you’ll agree.” Certainly after fourteen minutes and 20 seconds, any spoken word at all is bound to have a dramatic effect. Yet there's more to this than tension and release. There isn’t anything I can point to in the dialogue or the delivery to explain it. It’s just an ineffable authenticity in Daniel Day Lewis's acting that I’ve only felt a few times in all of my life.

One of Anderson’s most artistic contributions comes with his use of music. The score is probably a director’s greatest temptation. Overwrought music is often the last-ditch tool used to smooth over an awkward scene, a poor performance, or even an entire cinematic failure. (Not convinced? Revisit the Mendes/Hanks fiasco “Road to Perdition”).

Johnny Greenwood’s mostly original score finds a new orchestral language for communicating tension. His Ligeti-inspired strings tonally converging and diverging, an irritatingly insistent percussion cadence worthy of Stravinsky himself – these tell us as much about Plainview as does anything else. Which isn’t to say it tells us much. Unlike a Wagner opera, the orchestra fills out not so much the emotional depth as much as psychological impenetrability. What else would you expect from Radiohead’s lead guitarist?

It’s odd to use the words “intimate” to describe a film characterized by terse dialogue, detached cinematography, and unexplainable action. Yet that's what this film is. It’s an intimate look into the unknown. Filmmakers, like the rest of us, presume to know too much, to communicate too much. We’re too afraid to explore the unknown in ourselves and others, and to leave space in our thoughts. The beauty of “There Will Be Blood” is that it gives in, admits its ignorance, and sails across our subconscious, across humanity’s ambiguities.

This was no easy feat. To do so, Anderson had to somehow transform Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” from a polemical pro-socialist labor novel into a largely non-political (and bewildering) examination of the soul. Along the way, he discarded large portions of the book, while cleverly salvaging others, including a frightening and cinematically fresh look into the sinister backwoods world of turn-of-the-century evangelical Christianity. The novelty of this representation is due in large part to the preacher played by actor Paul Dano. His snake like contortions, abusive, slobbery healings add a new spin to this well-worn narrative feature. It’s certainly on par with his memorable performance as a Nietzschian teen in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

The film is not a masterpiece. Its final act veers dangerously close to classical Greek territory with a conventionally dramatic father/son confrontation. In fact, most of this act feels out of place; Plainview’s opulent demise into decadence and alcoholic seclusion seems more fitting of a popcorn drama. Thankfully, the final scene saves the entire production. I won’t spoil it for you, I just have four words: “I drink your milkshake.”

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