There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The story of the rise, rise and cynical rise of a misanthropic oil prospector mirrors on some level the structure of Citizen Kane, complete with extremely dark humor, but with the built-in mystery that’s since become Paul Thomas Anderson’s stock in trade on his subsequent films. Anderson’s visual sense is absolutely flawless, with help from some of the most gorgeous art direction and cinematography of recent years (not to mention Jonny Greenwood’s eerie, unsettling score), and his is a picture of contradictions: it’s an American story of building, creating and destroying. It’s a small human story of a de facto father and son (like The Master) writ in the imagery of the impossibly big. Alternatively, the direct war of capitalism and religion is played out as a battle between the worst examples of each run amok. We hate the tycoon Plainview but we also understand him to the extent we are permitted, and the way he runs away from others and from his own inadequacies is merely standard-issue humanity writ large. His determination earns him privilege but also makes him callous. We understand rage of Sunday, the man of Christ next door, but in a strange way we also share the catharsis at Plainview’s need to destroy him.
Daniel Day-Lewis presents Daniel Plainview in part as a broken portrait of class ambition and misplaced rage, to say nothing of a classically macho inability to deal with the needs and emotions of others. There is that oft-revisited moment wherein he scoffs before saying the word “people,” at which point it’s hard to avoid thinking of C.F. Kane calling his new wife “a cross-section of the American public.” Thanks to Anderson and his crew’s intoxicating period imagery, he also seems a figure of menace from a Thomas Nast cartoon, or a silent movie villain with permanent mustache. A man who hates people while knowing all too much about their nature, he spits and snarls and never seems to not be putting on a performance; the most we learn about what’s in his heart — aside from his thirst for vindication, validation — is in that completely dialogue-free opening quarter-hour of him mining, exploding, exploring alone, when all that we know of him is that he stops at nothing. We certainly know nothing when he leaves a little boy on a train and walks nonchalantly to a car except that he himself is the sole person he’s not capable of confronting.
To an extent that could probably be criticized as almost too direct, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is Daniel’s mirror image. After some sparring over the price of land, their feud begins with an absurdly petty snub when Eli isn’t permitted to give a blessing on the first day of drilling on the Sundays’ former land; when Eli takes a disaster afterward as validation, the stage is set. Both are violent sadists, both smirk with the righteousness of their chosen religion, and each revels in the experience of watching the other squirm. Eli beats and pounces on his father no less violently than Daniel tries to destroy him, smearing oil about him, after the accident that robs his supposed son of his hearing, thus Plainview of his proposed heir and business partner. Each will tell the other what to say. Each will make demands, and each will suffer in the light of his adversary, but only one will never blink. I’m finished, indeed.
The almost cartoonishly broad (but brilliant) performances of Day-Lewis and Dano evoke old Hollywood — both are enormously fun and gratifying to watch — and the kind of grit and sophistication that was much easier to bury in a seemingly straightforward story in those days. Nearly every individual scene is worth praising, exploring, pondering, yet their presence and the relationships between them often seem oblique; the film scarcely seems over when it abruptly ends, as there is still so much to work through. Anderson dedicates the picture to Robert Altman, but what he really suggests here is Kubrick, given that he follows his own storytelling instincts without needing to impart more than the bare minimum of context and hand-holding.
Though it’s marginally sourced from an Upton Sinclair novel, There Will Be Blood isn’t particularly direct or didactic about the human cost of big oil — it presents its characters and the horrible, seemingly random events that drive and ruin them with little sense of a grand design. Put simply, it’s far from a parable, and there is a shred of minimalism in Anderson’s storytelling that makes a potentially black-and-white story all the richer. But like Psycho or Days of Heaven, the movie quietly suggests a dark moralism that runs bitterly up against the uncontrollable harshness of the natural world, and in turn of human nature itself. Sunday is partially right that Plainview finally controls nothing, but the randomly swinging pendulum of control bends his way all too often, and that was and is the world we live in.