Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Time Capsule Review: "There Will Be Blood"

I recently stumbled upon some reviews I did back in college for the La Salle Collegian. In the interest of condensing all of my reviews on this site, I've decided to upload them sporadically throughout the next few weeks. I've chosen not to update them, mostly because I like the concept of reviews as time capsules for how we feel about movies at the time we first see them.

Below is a review of There Will Be Blood, which I originally reviewed in January of 2008. It’s a masterful film with a towering performance and a number of memorable scenes and quotes. Reading the review now, it’s hard to believe I made no mention of milkshakes.

There Will Be Blood is a gorgeously shot film.
Paul Thomas Anderson loves to dazzle. As a director, he usually accomplishes this feat with interesting color saturations and long tracking shots. As a writer, he calls upon fantastic moments (i.e. frogs raining from the sky) or odd deus ex machina (i.e. little pianos). However, with There Will Be Blood, Anderson has turned a corner. Although he’s still a dazzler, the writer-director has (mostly) abandoned his parlor tricks, limiting himself to the bare essentials in creating a mesmerizing character study that ranks alongside Citizen Kane in terms of pure ambition and scope.

Interestingly enough, Anderson opens the film with his lone embellishment—a nearly wordless 15-minute stretch in which he convincingly establishes the turn of the century setting and the fervor for oil. Functioning as the movie’s prologue, the sequence introduces Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and surveys his ascent to success, so that by the time dialogue sets in and he proclaims, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am an oilman,” we know he’s not kidding.

Accompanied by his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier), Plainview addresses these statements to a community that has discovered oil in its area. In trying to gain the people’s trust, Plainview realizes they have become too excitable, and he abandons them; they’re all wolves out for their fair share, and Plainview’s looking to deal with sheep.

By this point, Plainview is a successful man, with one strong strike paying him $5,000 a week and several other promising wells to boot. But it’s not enough for him, because he’s got a competition in him. He disdains paying for shipping and begrudges Standard Oil. He’s looking for a big score that will enable him to create his own oil empire so that he can, we later learn, retire from the society he hates with such fervor.

He eventually finds the ideal situation—an “ocean of oil” underneath the home of a bunch of sheep—but complications keep getting in the way. Some come on the business end—setbacks at the well and the invasive presence of Standard Oil—while others are more personal, like an accident at the oil field that leaves H.W. deaf or the arrival of long-lost brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor).

Despite all this, the biggest thorn in Plainview’s side continues to be the preacher Eli Sunday (an excellent Paul Dano), a self-righteous con-man who presents himself as a pious prophet. The interplay between these two emerges as a strong plot element, and also conjures themes of capitalism vs. religion.

However, through it all the backbone of the story remains that of a father and his son. Many critics are referring to Plainview as evil incarnate, and although I see the logic in this, I don’t buy it. The character that Day-Lewis and Anderson have created is too layered to be classified so easily. Plainview is a downright nasty guy, but he’s definitely more complex than the film’s most ardent critics are suggesting.

At times, he is shown to be tender with H.W. and then outright malicious; regretful for wrong treatment, while displaying a refusal to change. The relationship is drawn obtusely, and is left open to interpretation. My belief is that Plainview has feelings for H.W., but that he’s too emotionally retarded to act appropriately. The drive inside of him, the overwhelming hate he possesses, makes it impossible for him to do so. However, his desire for family (as seen in Plainview’s conversation with Henry) is evident.

For his part, Day-Lewis nails the intricacies of the role. Taking his memorable Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York to the next stage, Day-Lewis disappears into the character to deliver one of the best performances of the decade. Whatever your feelings on the film, it’s hard to deny he’s a powerhouse. Although the film's perfect from top to bottom, Anderson’s greatest masterstroke was to get Day-Lewis into th role.

Everything about the film, from Anderson’s brilliant script to Robert Elswit’s photography, is spot on. That said, special mention should be made of Johnny Greenwood’s majestic score. Taking a break from his regular gig as lead guitarist for Radiohead, Greenwood has perfectly echoed Plainview’s soul with a score that is both classical in structure and yet refreshingly experimental and discordant.

There Will Be Blood is not for everyone. Although it’s far more accessible than some of the more recent big studio art films like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, it will undoubtedly irk conventional moviegoers who are looking for a light, fun night at the movies. A+