Thursday, February 7, 2008

Yet Another Movie Review

This one, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, requires a bit of digestion. Very loosely based on Upton Sinclair's novel Oil!, the movie follows the enigmatic Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis in yet another quirky character immersion) as he struggles at the turn of the 19th-20th Century to carve a foothold for himself in the wild West and make a fortune. He dabbles perilously in gold mining before striking it rich with oil. But in good American entrepreneurial fashion, his single-minded desire is only to transform his oil fortune into absolute economic hegemony.

From the title of the Sinclair novel, you'd naturally think the movie is about the rigors of oil prospecting. But that's really just set-dressing. The movie is a character study of one man; every other actor plays a supporting role. I suppose Daniel Plainview is meant to represent a certain archetype of American frontier exploration, the tough-as-nails loner who teeters on the edge of death and ruin while he doggedly pursues the object of his obsession; and those who live to tell the tale, either by design or by default, come out the other end with a certain larger-than-life aspect about them. They are the survivors, the ones about whom stories are naturally written. This all seems a bit removed from polite, middle-class American life today, and indeed I wonder, good theater though it is, how small a percentage of the population had truck with these types even a century ago.

But as a character study, he's a fascinating one. Throughout the film's two hour forty minute length, Plainview emerges as a man driven not simply to succeed, but to beat others in the process; every interaction with another person is zero-sum. Alright, we think, that's one aspect of a man, an aspect required if one is to succeed in business. But what makes him so grotesquely magnetic is that there isn't another side to be found no matter how long or hard we look. His drive is quite beyond normal boundaries. Things which appear as nuances of character or regions of warmth are debunked in time or at least thrown into serious question, and the picture that emerges is an uneasy admixture of business acumen and reeling insanity.

There are stories about Daniel Day-Lewis being a kind of off-the-deep-end actor, someone who stays in character for the duration of the shoot or otherwise immerses in his characters to a degree which may strike us as silly. Whether there's any truth to these rumors or not, this film threatens to support this thinking. Day-Lewis's portrayal of Daniel Plainview is so comprehensive, that I'd be tempted to believe he wasn't acting at all--if it weren't for so many other quirky characters already on his resume. Even that movie poster photo of him is creepy in its totality. He has developed a total vocabulary of little gestures and movements and speech mannerisms that sell the character completely, a characterization that proclaims total commitment: I can make myself so convincingly repulsive that you will be tempted to hate me personally. That takes some guts.

After the fact, the movie reminds me of, say, Death of a Salesman. You know you're witnessing something special, but it doesn't instill a desire to go see it again.

And yet, I can't stop thinking about it.

Grade: A


dbackdad said...

Love your review.

wunelle said...

Thanks. I find that whatever I write I'm not quite finding the bottom of the subject.

Now I'm thinking I need to see it again.

patrick said...

finally got to see the infamous There Will Be Blood... Daniel-Day Lewis' performance was top-notch. He takes well to the overbearing, violent father-figure role -- he also did this in Gangs of New York.