Monday, February 11, 2008

There Will Be Blood

Yesterday, T. and I saw There Will Be Blood. It's a beautifully -- at times brilliantly -- made film about the inevitably corruptive power of oil on community, religion, and family. One exquisite set piece follows another, unfolding the life of its protagonist -- oil man Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) -- in episodic fashion against the backdrop of the early days of the oil business. In Blood, it's a business that -- whatever prosperity it might bring -- ultimately dirties everything it contacts. The film's strongest images are of black smoke discoloring a clear sky and the constant filth enveloping the oil workers. We watch one character literally forced to dirty his soul by rolling in oil.

The film opens with a long, nearly silent montage of Plainview's early struggles as a silver miner and oil man. As his luck improves, Plainview carries the gospel of oil to small communities, making deals with the landowners to extract oil from their property. Eventually, he gets word of oil-rich land on a ranch in California and -- posing as a hunter -- checks it out with his son. Along with the land, he acquires a lifelong rivalry with the young preacher Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). As the hyper-competitive, misanthropic Plainview's fortune grows, his personal relationships deteriorate, culminating in an estrangement from his deaf son. 

As Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis acts all over the place. He carries Plainview's stance, facial expression, vocal timbre and tone, and physical movement to their finest, most minute nuance. And there's the rub: We watch Day-Lewis open his considerable bag of acting tricks, put them all on display, and in the end reveal very little about Plainview's character. His highly mannered performance is more an acting clinic than the revelation of the the benighted soul of a corrupt man. It works at times, such as when Plainview is reunited with his son. Does he love the boy, as he says? Or is it another act? The talent and effort that goes into the portrayal may well garner Day-Lewis his second Academy Award. More power to him.

We know that Plainview's soul is benighted because the screenplay tells us that it is, leaving Day-Lewis free to wear a mask and shuffle about and speak like John Huston in Chinatown. (Now there's a great movie about corruption.) Which brings up the second big problem with the film: It's as short on narrative as it is on character development. The episodic framework becomes herky-jerky in practice, and can leave the viewer wondering wha' hoppen. When Eli admits to being a fraud, it comes out of nowhere. I suppose that we know he's a fraud because movie evangelists always are, but until his confession there's nothing to indicate that Eli knows he is. It's as if you've been handed a 10-chapter novel with only chapters 2, 4, 5, 7, and 10 included. (This helps explain why the first half of Blood is so much stronger than the second half.) 

In the end, Blood suffers from too much skill and talent at the service of an uncertain script. Some passages are perfectly modulated, others underplayed to a fault, and still others completely over the top. The ending is not explained by prior events, but Anderson wants us to witness a final confrontation between capitalism and religion and he's going to show it to us come hell or high water. His conclusions are not without merit, but they come without being earned. 

Blood is the most maddening film you're likely to see this year. Much of it will leave you unmoved or scratching your head. On the other hand, what's good is so good that you don't want to miss it. And though I can't help thinking that Blood could have been great, I must admit that Anderson and Day-Lewis attempt a hell of shot even if it did misfire.

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