Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) – the Friday Classic review
It didn’t make the Sight & Sound top 100 this decade, but it’s only a matter of time before Paul Thomas Anderson ends up drinking everyone’s milkshake.
There Will Be Blood
(Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2007)
Just when you think you have Paul Thomas Anderson pegged, he pulls the rug out from under you. Having made his name with the bustling, Altman-meets-Scorsese canvases of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he executed a perfect 180 degree turn into mad-as-bats art-house rom-com Punch Drunk Love. And then, after a lengthy absence, he returned with There Will Be Blood, which at first glance looked more conventional than anything he’s done…and which is arguably odder and more original than anything he’s done. There’s no clear sense of what kind of personality drives Anderson, beyond formidable technical talent and a fearless storytelling that revels in trying something new. The Master can’t come quick enough.
There Will Be Blood plays like the missing link between John Ford and Dallas, a Western in look and feel but one less concerned with the establishing of America’s frontiers than the forging of America’s soul. The film’s central battle between oil and religion couldn’t be more topical, but Anderson downplays the obvious allegory in favour of something that’s close to being the creation myth of modern America. By appropriating the iconography of the Western, with its dirty pioneers trying to tame the dusty, barren landscape, for such a stark and pessimistic fable, there’s something genuinely subversive going on.
Clearly, Anderson remains in thrall to his idol Robert Altman – this is his McCabe and Mrs Miller – but he’s finally broken free of the master’s style. There aren’t even echoes of the fluid multi-voice mosaic of his breakthrough movies. This is storytelling stripped down to essentials, an impressionistic collage (or perhaps collision) of elemental forces: light and dark, underground and overground, inside and outside. There are few characters – essentially this is the story of two men, and one of them is firmly established as an irritating distraction to the other – and even less in the way of dialogue: nothing comprehensible is uttered for a good fifteen minutes.
In any other film, Paul Dano’s whiny, hypocritical preacher Eli Sunday, a model of how to play the fundamentalist charlatan, would be the maddest character around, but in contrast to his nemesis here, he comes across as vaguely normal. Clearly, he stands no chance against Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis is full-on, unchecked scene-chewing glory. Plainview is a very modern villain, a man whose unchecked lust for oil literally fuels the plot. There’s no backstory, and barely any motivation (money? Power? The sheer hell of it?) – when we first see him, he’s a demonic figure emerging from the bowels of the earth, and he probably makes more sense viewed in that metaphorical light than as a fully developed character. In fact, between Plainview and No Country For Old Men’s Anton Chigurgh, the American cinema of 2007 created two striking bogeymen for that country’s difficult times. If Chigurgh is the id, Plainview is the ego, and both are equally implacable, unstoppable and very scary.
Day-Lewis takes this idea and runs with it, giving Plainview a sonorous, timeless voice and otherworldly stare, and the fashion sense of a man who’s not quite mastered how humans dress – he looks, for all the world, like a mad scoutmaster. It’s a performance that out-bombasts Day-Lewis’ turn in Gangs of New York, but he tempers it with considerable charm and old-school courtesy to keep Plainview just the right side of caricature. The character’s inscrutability extends to his relationship with his adopted son: Plainview is either the most dedicated father a boy could have or the biggest fraud going. Flawed father figures are the nearest thing to a theme that Anderson has, and this is the most fascinating version of it yet simply because the film works equally well with either reading.
Anderson lets the brooding intensity of Plainview govern his style. Where his previous protagonists ran like headless chicken, forcing Anderson’s camera to follow suit, this is far more classical and reserved, keeping in time with the character and the period. The directorial bravura comes instead from the extraordinary breadth of tone, from an incredibly well-visualised gusher set-piece to the almost slapstick comedy of Plainview and Eli’s mutual hatred. And then, in the final act, the film veers into overwrought melodrama, in which Day-Lewis is indulged to go utterly apeshit and Anderson stakes his claim to being this generation’s Stanley Kubrick, in a dead-eyed, ironic condemnation of just about everything America holds dear.
Throughout, things are driven by Johnny Greenwood’s extraordinary, varied score. Anderson proved in Magnolia he knew how to harness the power of pop music and this, in applying the dynamics of the Radiohead musician to such flamboyant storytelling versatility, the result is film-as-concept album, each new scene a different song but all working towards Anderson’s devastating accumulative effect.