February 4, 2008

Hatred, Thy Name Is Plainview

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Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is, on the surface, an acidic and harrowing narrative about merciless and greed-soaked oil prospecting in the deserted turn-of-the-century western frontier.

Earning eight Oscar nominations — including Best Picture, Best Direction and Best Actor — There Will Be Blood has unquestionably commanded attention and interest this winter season.

Beginning in 1898, the film follows the fascinating, tormented life of a competitive, hateful oil prospector named Daniel Plainview. Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a self-made “oil-man” who has poured his life into a ruthless and bitter hunger for money and power over the oil industry in California. He learns of a vast underground reserve of oil in a destitute town called Little Boston.

There he meets Eli Sunday, a young, corrupt and manipulative preacher, who has started his own church, The Church of the Third Revelation. He’s much like Mr. Plainview; both are proud and ambitious, with a hint of psychosis.

Plainview is not the typical cinematic capitalist villain. Rather, he’s intense, but in control of his emotions, while a raw, brutish primordialism hides underneath his skin that will eventually consume him. Day-Lewis’ performance is both frightening and hilarious, helping mold the nearly three-hour epic into not only a drama, but also at times a comedy.

Plainview’s articulate yet rugged intonation, and his distinctly Western inflection is a very obvious reference to the legendary John Huston, best known for his direction of the classic 1940s noir The Maltese Falcon and a star-turn in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Day-Lewis’ interpretation is also somewhat hyper-realistic; the artistic choice to acutely express the intensity of his character fits in with the larger-than-life visual and aural aesthetic — it’s a breathtaking work of actorly brilliance.

There Will Be Blood also features a surprisingly terrific performance from Paul Dano, best known for playing the estranged, Nietzsche-loving son of the dysfunctional, yet endearing, family in Little Miss Sunshine. With only a modest string of movies to his credit, Dano landed the role of a lifetime, which has earned him recognition as a talented young actor.

Although originally based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, There Will Be Blood is not, like its source material, simply a commentary on the ugliness of capitalism. Upton Sinclair, perhaps America’s most famous muckraker, was a Socialist who portrayed capitalism as a poisonous and controlling influence in the quickly industrializing 20th century America.

Indeed, the cinematography of Blood expresses a violent defilement of the earth’s riches. The opening of the movie begins with Plainview plunging into the ground to filch silver. It is terrifying and intense. And later, the oil wells are disgustingly phallic — Plainview’s extreme expression of his perverse desire for money.

Unlike Sinclair’s perspective, however, Anderson’s expression in the film appears to be far more complex. The grotesque current of capitalism is merely the backdrop for a far cruder appraisal of the hatred in men. When talking to the man claiming to be his brother, Plainview explains, “I hate most people … I look at people and see nothing worth liking.”

And it is this very sentiment that is at the heart of Plainview and Sunday’s bitter hatred of one another. There is something rotten, twisted and cancerous in both of their souls. What differentiate the two are the vehicles in which they funnel their rot. Plainview and Sunday have competing forms of expression for their supreme hatred, the former by way of oil and the latter by religion.

The title in itself conjures up another meditation on the complexity of relationships amongst men in the midst such hatred. Upon first hearing the title There Will Be Blood, it is easy to think of a Rob Zombie slasher movie. And given that the film is quite bloodless, the title has peculiar resonance in the relationships of patrimony and family portrayed throughout.

When an oilrig explodes, Plainview dashes over to save his son, H.W. —the only thing Plainview might have loved for a time. He grabs his son, both of them soaked in oil, and runs back to a mess hall to make sure he is not hurt. However, it is not long before he leaves H.W. to run back to the oilrig to celebrate his profound success. In turn, H.W. sets their house on fire.

There Will Be Blood is a brilliant work of art, which has catapulted Paul Thomas Anderson’s reputation as a director. The music of the film, composed by Radiohead’s lead guitarist Johnny Greenwood, has also re-thought the role and effectiveness of music in cinema. It is a soundtrack unlike any other that makes There Will Be Blood a surreal experience.

An intense look into one man’s rise and fall, There Will Blood is a horrifying look into the hatred of man.