Tuesday, January 29, 2008

BLOOD SIMPLE. There Will Be Blood may be the strangest Best Picture Oscar nominee since -- well, ever. Like the Oscar-nominated oddballs The Elephant Man and The Piano, it's soaked in enough rich period detail to satisfy Ismael Merchant, but it takes a relentlessly eccentric approach to storytelling -- it fact, the plot (independent oilman Daniel Plainview scraps out a big claim in turn-of-the-century California) is more like a private agony writ huge. John DeFore astutely calls it "both an epic and a miniature" -- though it has a great scope of events and scale of ambition, only a few of the characters matter, and actually maybe only one of them really does. And we barely get to know him, because there is not that much to know.

Plainview is all ambition -- "I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people." Of course we may expect such a creature to attract unsought obstacles. The biggest of these is Eli Sunday, a deranged charismatic preacher whose father's oil-rich land Plainview has swindled for himself. Plainview could buy Sunday off with a small show of respect, but this he refuses to give.

Why? We suspect that Plainview sees something like God in Sunday, and though it is little spoken of, we have reason to believe that for Plainview God is the force that seeks to thwart him: that kills his men, blows up his wells, broke his leg. (Here be spoilers.)

Sunday seems to believe the same thing. But though they are locked in struggle, the two men don't have the same ends. Plainview wants dominion over the earth, Sunday dominion over men. (Later, we'll see that each wants a little of the other, too.) When circumstances give Sunday an opportunity to kill Plainview's plans, he doesn't do it -- he prefers to use it to torture Plainview at his weak point, his anguish at "abandoning" his adopted son, and thus exact a more personal revenge that exalts his own power to save souls.

Plainview submits to save his claim. The oil flows, the fortune is made.... but There Will Be Blood.

This leads to an ending many critics find problematic. I disagree. It's formally audacious, but the whole film has been that -- this is just a new, shocking type of audacity. Suddenly it's years later, we're in a little room, and under bright lights Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano (Plainview and Sunday) act their asses off in a chamber drama/cage match. And there's Blood!

I suspect the arguments over the ending have less to do with the tone shift than with an unease with the whole film that the mini-gotterdammerung ending throws into relief. For me, the ending satisfactorily fulfills the story. But what about that story?

In reducing it to its crucial elements, I fear I may have skewed the impact of the film as a whole. The struggle with Sunday is important, and that character is beautifully realized by Dano: full of mad energy in preaching and in rage (and reminiscent of a young Gene Wilder when his voice frantically scrapes the top of its register), but dazedly calm when the fit is not on him. His Biblical mood swings are an intriguing foil for Day-Lewis, who gives us a more clinical psychological reality, in which the madness appears in streaks suppressed by his drive to get the job done -- until there is nothing suppressing it at all.

I can't quite put my finger on when it becomes clear that Plainview is depraved. The madness of his drive is clear from the time he drags his shattered leg to the assayer's office rather than to a doctor. And even his first speech, to a community whose land he wishes to drill, shows us how strange he is. I have seen Day-Lewis' voice compared with John Huston's; my buddy Bob heard Jack Palance. I heard a man who is sure of himself but hiding something so deep that it has calcified his speech, albeit into pleasing patterns.

It's a good choice, as they say, and it affords Day-Lewis enough vocal headroom to play bravura when he needs to. But while his confrontations with Sunday are key, they are few, and the rest of the ample time leaves us with this man and the weaker characters, whom he can do nothing but negate.

When he is briefly drawn out by a visit by a putative "brother from another mother" (the excellent Kevin J. O'Connor), Plainview only relaxes enough to explicate his already obvious contempt for humanity -- and, in the end, his anger at being made to trust. The closest thing to a love-object in his life is his quasi-son, adopted in infancy from a dead comrade. Little "H.W." grows into an affectless, close-mouthed boy who shadows his father and seems to accept his guidance as love, until an accident leaves him deaf; then he begins to act out viciously, and Plainview sends him away. This leaves Plainview with an obvious psychic wound which Sunday exploits, and which drives him to extravagant anger at people he imagines would "tell me how to raise my family." But it is clear -- even when the boy returns and Plainview smothers him with affection -- that he realizes that he has given the child no real love at all, because he has none to give.

What Plainview has been hiding (until the end, when he has nothing left to hide) is an inability to empathize with any other human being. When we begin to understand this, the film achieves a kind of emotional stasis: we can have terror, terror in abundance, but no pity. Which is to say, we cannot have tragedy. So when the final release comes, it is pure grand guignol: a blood-letting battle of monsters.

For all the extravagant brilliance of his production (every craft aspect of which is stunning), Paul Thomas Anderson has been brutal about withholding the emotional release that such a big movie leads us to expect. It's a chilling sort of grandeur and I can understand why a lot of people find it repulsive. I can't imagine it will find a lot of love at the Oscars, even for Day-Lewis, whose performance peels the fucking paint off the walls. A Gordon Gekko may invite us to sneaking empathy with his lascivious cruelty, but Plainview gives no quarter and can expect none.

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