Wednesday, January 16, 2008

There Will Be Blood

I stay for the credits of a movie. It annoys people sometimes - the people I've come with, the people who just want to clean the theater before letting people in for the next show, the people trying to get out who have to climb over me. Heck, it annoys me, when I'm held prisoner by this force of habit but know it could be the difference between getting home and waiting twenty minutes in the cold, rain, and/or snow for the next bus.

It's useful, though. $8.50 for a matinee seems a little less unreasonable when you see the sheer mass of people required to make even a small, bad movie. And it gives you a couple minutes more where you're not necessarily in the movie's world, but at least in its orbit. You don't yet have to take your mind off of the story and characters and focus it on parking or the MBTA or what you're doing next.

You can just process what you've just seen, which is especially helpful with a movie like There Will Be Blood, whose ending is both abrupt and perfect. Leave right as the credits start to roll, and you might be thinking "well, that was pretty good, until it went off the rails at the end." Take a couple minutes, and you might decide it needed to go off the rails.

Oh, and pick up your garbage afterwards. It's not like it takes that much effort.

There Will Be Blood

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 5 January 2008 at Cooldge Corner Theater #1 (first-run)

It's the music in There Will Be Blood that gets me first, even before Daniel Day-Lewis's fantastic performance. Jonny Greenwood's score is something of a blunt instrument, using practically subsonic bass to underscore the ever-present darkness in the main character's soul and frequent crashes to suggest the labor used to feed the man's greed. Not subtle, but effective.

As the movie starts, the music is carrying a lot of the load, as Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) is prospecting alone and not one to waste words when there's no-one there to hear them. He could perhaps use a partner, as the process leaves him injured and near dead by the time he strikes oil. He builds up a small company, but allows no-one close to him until a worker dies, leaving behind a baby that Daniel takes as his own. He calls the boy H.W., and ten years later is introducing H.W. as his partner and son. H.W. (Dillon Freasier) is there when Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) sells them the location of a field with oil seeping right through the surface. The owner of that field, Paul's father Abel (David Willis), has another son, Eli (Dano again), a preacher who wants more than money from Daniel. The Plainviews do strike oil, but it comes at a terrible price. Word of Daniel's success also attracts a ne'er-do-well brother (Kevin J. O'Connor) who he hasn't had contact with in years.

Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't show his face on a movie set for anything less than a fantastic, award-worthy part these days, and Plainview is a corker. He's a beast, of course, displaying a cold ruthlessness in his business dealings and a practiced formality in his dealings with others until the time comes for his rage to break through. He's self-aware without winking at the audience, and Day-Lewis not only delivers lines about how Plainview hates most people instinctively in a way that's matter-of-fact but not confessional; he's not ashamed of it, just canny enough to realize that it's detrimental to let most people know this. Day-Lewis takes this confession to heart, and it's part of almost every scene he plays - he's either holding back his disdain or loosening the reigns on his anger.

And yet, despite all that, Day-Lewis and filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson give us a character who is captivating beyond being a monster. I suspect even people far more religious than I will find themselves surreptitiously cheering Plainview as he deals with the hypocrisy and greed of his bible-thumping neighbor: There's a sequence where Eli impresses upon Plainview how the community might appreciate it if Eli delivered a dedication when the town's first rig was opened, and Plainview finds a way to deliver him a lesson in humility. He enjoys it too much, and it likely makes him an enemy for life, but it's hard not to share some of his satisfaction. His relationship with H.W. is also fascinating; there's ample suggestion that the boy is just a way to humanize Daniel to prospective partners, and it's clear that Daniel doesn't really know how to love H.W. as a father should, but there is still his own flawed way.

Naturally, being Daniel Plainview's son will make a kid a bit odd, and Dillon Freasier does a pretty fantastic job of capturing that without making H.W. into something not recognizable as a human child like many other child actors might. There's unconditional love there, but he's also unconsciously absorbed the father's habit of not wearing one's heart on one's sleeve. The other noteworthy performance is Paul Dano, who makes Eli something of a cipher of his own - is he a devout man who is corrupted by pride and envy, or someone who sees the church as the only thing that can build him up to Daniel's level in the community? He makes a fantastic antagonist for Daniel, unctuous piousness contrasted with honest greed and hate.

Anderson uses every tool at his disposal to bring us into this dark place. The sky is never anything but overcast; the whole world of the film is a muddy brown. He contrasts the great wooden derricks Plainview builds (more impressive than the later steel variety, because they combine inhuman sclae with comprehensible technique) with the almost ostentatious modesty of having him sleep on the floor. As much as this is very much a character piece, it's also grand. The length of the film and the wideness of the screen allows Plainview to isolate himself. The music, which I've mentioned, is relentlessly foreboding. Even after we've seen some of the nastiest expressions of human nature, it holds out the promise of worse, right up to the last sequence.

And that end... It's masterful, but not right away. Quite frankly, it initially seems like Anderson has lost his marbles, nastily throwing out many of the shades of gray he'd so carefully built, and in a way that makes it seem like he's treating the whole thing as a joke. After a bit, though, it becomes a thing of beauty: This is a movie about drilling for oil, after all, and what is that but building and digging in hopes that a gusher of the blackest material imaginable will come spewing out? It's been held in a long time, but now it's going to explode faster than we're ready for.

That's a kind of greatness - after two and a half hours, I thought I'd seen it all, but there was still something I wasn't prepared for.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with six other reviews

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