18 January 2011
The hardest films to talk about are always the ones I love and admire so thoroughly, and there have been precious few films in the last decade I hold in as high a regard as There Will Be Blood. Just like the poster says, it's ambition versus faith, and each side is painted in such savage, unforgiving colors and with so much raw charisma that it's just hypnotic.
Daniel Day Lewis is an actor who relies on external impersonative acting more than internalized character building, but for someone as outsized and showman-like as Daniel Plainview it becomes spot-on casting -- recalling Christian Bale (another excellent impersonator) and his Patrick Bateman, Plainview seems unsure what lies beneath his own surface. But where Bateman had a hollow center surrounded by various affectations, I think Daniel Plainview is truly the same on the surface as he is throughout. We are ten or fifteen minutes into the story before anyone speaks, and during that time we watch Plainview, alone in the desert, every bit the man he claims to be. He gets his hands dirty, so to speak, without hesitation, and if he exploits the existence of an adopted son and denies his loathing toward the humans he strives to outdo and outpace (which is all of them), these are still traits he carries to the very core of his being. "To thine own self be true," right? -- well say what you will about him, Plainview is at least true to himself. Sunday, on the other hand... well... the jury's out on that.
So many subtle foreshadowings I caught this time, as when Eli (mud-coated and furious, having just been physically beaten and humiliated by Daniel) takes his rage out on his elderly father, wailing on him and crying out how Paul the brother is the cause of all their troubles -- just before "Henry Plainview" appears and, acting as Daniel's brother, causes new troubles. Just little moments like that stand out and impress, mostly in the order of scenes or the way the context of one scene is inverted to become the subtext of the next.
When Daniel and his deaf son sit to eat in the local restaurant, but Daniel's business competitors get served first, the shot is framed such that one of the competitors' shoulder and arm crowd the frame, that we have to look over and around him to see Daniel and H.W., but even more telling than that is the man's menu, a diagonal slash through the frame separating Daniel from his son. From the moment the newcomers sit down, Daniel cannot relax and be a father to his boy, and soon raises up, drunk, and causes a bit of a scene, even threatens to become violent. If his boy represents his best hope and strongest connection to humanity, then the outrage of comparing himself unfavorably to some uppity businessmen from the big city drives a wedge in there. He says it himself, "I have a competition in me." But it's the way tiny moments like this are put to us that illustrate the point stronger than any magnetic, hyper-charged words. I mean, when H.W. is struck deaf and the oil derrick at Little Boston erupts with an endless flame that tells them what a treasure they're sitting on, it's hardly coincidence that the sky deepens within a single minute from clear day to blackest night, that they seem to be peering excitedly into the gates of hell, and that Daniel's face is coated in a black slime. These things say more than the words around them.
I mean, I could go on, but it's just a laundry list of minutiae done well. Every detail from the smallest to the largest is in aid of a strong story here, one of the best, and a hard one for me to argue with. You know it's a good year when you are not just rooting against the Coens, but a little offended when No Country For Old Men (hardly a bad film, by any means) steals all the Oscars, but in ten years, or twenty, or fifty, I think There Will Be Blood will be dancing circles around that particular Coen Brothers film. Compare it to A Serious Man, however, and I'm less positive which will be considered more of a classic.
I'm not sure if this makes sense or not, but in my mind I consider There Will Be Blood as the contemporary benchmark for the line between what people call cinema and what people call movies.