Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood may be the finest film to come out of Hollywood in the last 10 years. Surely no other American film has been filled with such unabashed anger, audacity and clarity in its point of view. These qualities make it uncommonly provocative both in terms of its subject and in terms of how it is executed. While a movie like The Social Network earns critical kudos for the spotlight that it shines on our current state of culture, There Will Be Blood traces the origins of our current state to meditate on the root of the world's biggest predicament.
The story is simple enough. There is a man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis), who arrives in the town of Little Boston at the turn of the century to drill for oil. He cons the townsfolk into adopting him as a savior of sorts and then gradually drains their land of its riches (both literally and figuratively) until there is nothing left for him to take. In the process, Daniel forsakes his adopted son and comes up against the local minister, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) who professes a desire to protect the community, and yet shares the oil man's mercenary talent for manipulation. Both men know what they want and their every action is filled with an ambiguity, that forces us to question their motives.
Their personas are self-crafted and calculated to elicit a response that will advance their cause. Scarcely a single word is uttered between them that we can be certain is sincere. This is all the more disturbing in the case of the minister, who we would like to believe is doing what he's doing for a higher purpose, but the hypocrisy is undeniable. When Daniel unveils the first oil derrick in Little Boston, does he bless the rig because he's superstitious? To manipulate the town? To spite the minister? We never know. When the minister baptizes Daniel (in one of the film's most harrowing scenes) are his methods just a little more vicious than they need to be? Is it a purity of heart that leads him to bless Daniel, or is he merely stringing him along in the hopes of receiving a larger cash donation?
In their colossal clash of wills, the men come to represent the two most important pillars of modern life: faith and finance. The film exposes the inverse connection between the two and suggests that there is a duality within every man that often cannot be resolved. This duality is iterated from the very outset by the curious appearance of Paul Sunday (Eli's brother), who comes to bring the family's oil claim to Daniel. Both brothers are played by Paul Dano and by the end of the film it is impossible to know whether they actually both exist. By the time Eli comes crawling to Daniel begging for money, we wonder if he didn't masquerade as Paul in order to extricate himself from the guilt of his own greed. Either way, this ambiguity is the heart and soul of the film in every respect.
The lingering camera hangs on the action, creeping forward eerily like the greed that slowly infects Daniel's soul. As he continues to dig himself deeper, we want to believe he can still be redeemed. Anderson's impartial camera forces us to study Daniel. It forces us to project a humanity onto him that ultimately proves not to exist. When he reflects on his relationship with his son in the film's penultimate scene, contempt overtakes his sense of nostalgia. No one but Daniel Day Lewis could have played this part. His performance embodies both the loftiness and the grim humor of the movie's many themes. It is Daniel Day Lewis who makes the story so unpredictable, projecting a queasy blend of volatility and mock tenderness.
The entire film teeters on the edge between wrath and restraint; between the Judeo-Christian ethic and a shadier, more complicated hierarchy of motivations. Visually this is expressed in the inky saturation of the color palette and the murky blur of light and dark that frames the film. Daniel's thirst for power is matched only by Eli's hunger for religious authority. Both men use their status to manipulate people. Both men aspire to absolute dominion over their kingdoms. Both men become so consumed with defending their interests that they are willing to sacrifice their core ideals in order to pursue them. The finale is all the more disturbing because of how senselessly it is resolved. Daniel is seen emerging as the victor not because he has actually won something tangible, but rather because he has come full circle to embrace his true nature without pretense. Eli is never given that chance.
There is a dogged sense of justice to all of the film's mysterious events. Daniel abandons his son and gains what he thinks is a brother, only to learn that he is being conned. Eli pretends to abandon his faith in order to save his church, only to realize that he has abandoned everything. But what is it that we are ultimately left with? Is Anderson blaming the absence of reason on the absence of god, or is he saying that god leaves us mortals to grapple with the questions? Perhaps his vision has nothing to do with god. Perhaps instead he is saying that his two pillars will continue to feed off one another for all of time until their inevitable destruction. Still, there is something comforting in the power of ideas so expertly articulated. Great art is filled with such ideas. Maybe Anderson is actually telling us it isn't too late. As long as there remains a debate we each have the power to resolve it.