January 6, 2008

There Will Be Blood

A scathing indictment of greed in general, and capitalism and religion in particular, There Will Be Blood tells its story with a chapter in history which I'd not seen onscreen before: hunting for oil in America, circa 1900.
Daniel Day-Lewis is Daniel Plainview, pure capitalism and greed embodied as a beast in man's clothing. His total immersion in the business of riches has left him with nothing but contempt for all people, specifically their weakness and failures. He wears clothes and speaks English, but he lives off the earth like a scavenger. He digs in the ground, first hacking away in a bottomless mine, picking for silver, then using his bare hands to sniff out oil like a bear sniffing for blood. He sleeps on the ground; he is usually filthy and grimy, and of course, oily- even when he is relatively clean and well-dressed, he is still grimy with the dirt and oil of his life.
While he digs in the earth for his survival like a scavenger, he is more of a predator amongst landowners, oil company competition, and those who threaten him. Like a shark or lion, he has no enemies, no one who is capable of harming him, so he has no fear. When he moves into a new town and builds his first derrick, he meets a young fire-and-brimstone evangelist Eli Sunday (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine), the closest thing to a leader the huddled peasants of this God-forsaken patch of desert can claim. Eli wants to assert his alpha-male status in town, so he very pleasantly asks Daniel if he can perform a blessing of the derrick at the opening ceremony. Daniel very courteously agrees. This is the politically savvy thing to do: there's nothing lost in tossing a ceremonial bone to the local yokels, but the next afternoon, Daniel simply ignores Eli and steals the blessing idea for himself.
Daniel Day-Lewis is spectacular. He's only made three movies this decade, after appearing on only five in the 1990s and nine in the 1980s. Part of me wishes we could see him more often, but his scarcity increases his value; two English actors who could use some scarcity come to mind: Jude Law has appeared in 15 films since breaking through in The Talented Mister Ripley eight years ago; Twenty-two year-old Keira Knightley has appeared in fifteen films in the last five years.
There is barely a cast worth mentioning beyond Day-Lewis and Dano: Kevin J. O'Connor (The Mummy) has a few scenes as Daniel's brother, and CiarĂ¡n Hinds's (Munich) part must have been bigger in the script, because he's barely in the movie.
What about the work of director/screenplay adaptor Paul Thomas Anderson? His direction is deft and powerful, and mostly restrained and clever. I am pleased with almost all of his choices. I found the final scene of the film to be a odd mix of absurdity and restraint- Anderson almost obliterates our sympathies with both lead characters mere moments before the curtain draws to a close.
My only serious complaint with Anderson's choices is the score. Besides a few classical pieces, the original score is a bombastic mess. Overwrought and distracting, it's the worst score I have heard since the synth-rock mess of Ladyhawke (1985). The original score is credited to Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, making his feature-film scoring debut. Stanley Kubrick, a big influence on Anderson, used to commission original scores for his movies, then toss out most of the material and replace it with hand-picked classical selections. It's hard to tell how much of the score is by Greenwood and how much is lifted from the classical world, but several musical cues, including the opening sequence, sound exactly like music from Kubrick's The Shining.
I found it hard to categorize and evaluate my opinion of this movie for two reasons: so much of the movie's value comes directly from Daniel Day-Lewis's performance, which is superb; also, I hated the score so much, it clouds my judgment. If I try and see past my dislike of the score, I have to give There Will Be Blood a high grade. For a movie I will never see again, it was certainly one of the best of the year.

Second Viewing Update (March 4, 2008, Belmont Studio Cinema): It's been two months, and in my original review I said I would never see this movie again. Over the last two months, I have related my opinions of the movie to friends, I read all the pre-Oscars discussions online and in the press, and my memory of the movie distilled and mellowed. I decided that I would see the movie again.At the original screening, I spent most of my mental energy following the action onscreen. There is very little dialog, and the director makes every scene count for something. The protagonist, Daniel Plainview, only speaks what he's thinking in one or two scenes, so you have to pay attention to know what's going on. For example, after Plainview and his brother Henry go swimming, Daniel unintentionally catches Henry's deceitfulness, but it's played so subtly, it's not obvious. The following shot of Daniel floating in the ocean, with a large wave cresting behind him, is a powerful symbol of Plainview's rising suspicion and rage.
In my original review (above), I described the music as "overwrought and distracting". I decided to pay special attention to the score this time, and I noticed that the music is only "overwrought and distracting" in one scene. In other places in the movie, the score is aggressively avant-garde and modern, but the tone is appropriate to the action.
I think it's a compliment to the picture that it doesn't all sink in on the first viewing. Some might take "rewards repeat viewing" as a backhanded compliment-- I am sure the producers wish it was more rewarding the first time around -- but I mean those words in a good way. It's a complicated and thrilling ride, which challenged me all the way through.