Tuesday, January 29, 2008

 

Paul Thomas Anderson makes intelligent, well focused films: Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love & now There Will Be Blood. Because of the first two, Anderson is acknowledged as a master of the ensemble film & it’s true that he says his favorite movie of all time is Network & that There Will Be Blood is dedicated to the late Robert Altman, the Picasso of the genre. But There Will Be Blood is much more like Punch Drunk Love in that it’s a character study, a film fixed firmly on a single individual whose narrative unveils their personality. I recall Kathy Acker once telling me that character was, for her, the most mysterious element in fiction, that it was one thing to have sentences & paragraphs integrate upward into a story line, but something altogether different to give a sense of a living, breathing person, especially somebody who might be altogether different from the author.

Daniel Plainview, the misanthropic oil speculator portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis, presumably is quite a bit different from Anderson. Who Plainview is not particularly different from is Fred C. Dobbs, the paranoid prospector at the center of Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Anderson admits that when he wrote the screenplay, adapted from Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, he would watch Treasure each night as he fell asleep. If Lewis plays Plainview as though he were living the role thoroughly, it may well be that he both understands this model uncommonly well – and he knows that his real competition here is Humphrey Bogart at his most extravagant. Dobbs’ paranoia is a little more wild-eyed than Plainview’s, but under the surface the same DNA beats in both. You can still see the remnants of Upton Sinclair’s moral tale about the evil that capital wreaks on the men most determined to have it. Plainview’s a man determined to win and the simplest way to do that is to deny the humanity of one’s competitors. That in turn might justify just about anything. Who a competitor is proves highly situational: it might be the man who owns the land you seek to lease or buy; it might be Standard Oil; it could be the baby-faced evangelical who wants to minister to your employees; it could even be your son. Or your brother. But once you are competition, however Plainview defines it, you are outside the infinitely small circle of what he might care about. In a sense, this film, like Martin Scorsese’s not too dissimilar The Aviator, chronicles just how that circle tightens the more successful Plainview is.

Success does isolate an individual. Just ask Britney Spears. But, Anderson suggests, more than suggests, some people succeed because they are driven to isolate themselves. Plainview says as much at different moments in the movie. I’m not convinced of the psychology of this, but it does make for an effective story arc. Anderson accentuates it by surrounding Day-Lewis with character actors who haven’t been overused – David Willis, who plays the preacher’s dad Abel Sunday, is an actor roughly my age who has been in exactly four motion pictures, one of them 26 years ago. You might remember him as Franz Bettmann in The Good German, but the roles are so different it’s improbable. Indeed, the one person you might recognize in this production besides Day-Lewis is likely to be Paul Dano, who plays the baby-faced preacher as well as his opportunist brother. Dano was the silent teenager in Little Miss Sunshine who wanted to be an astronaut. Again the roles are so different that neither my wife nor son recognized him. Russell Harvard, who plays the grown-up son H.W. Plainview, has just short film credit to his name, plus a single episode of CSI: New York. Kevin O’Connor, who plays Daniel’s brother, has bounced around as a character actor for years, but his biggest role to date has been as Igor, Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant in Van Helsing.

Surrounding Day-Lewis with actors you can’t name is a great way to make the file entirely about his character. It’s one of many subtle devices like this throughout the film, which does not go out of its way to explain things. For example, one question that neither I nor my wife or my son could answer is what was in the diary that young H.W. read & did it cause him to set the fire to the cabin? Was H.W. trying to “get” the brother? It’s actually possible that the answer is there on the screen, but unlike most Hollywood movies, Anderson doesn’t bludgeon you with details. I wonder how many viewers even notice the narrative of how Plainview acquires the boy, which occurs in the first 90 seconds of the motion picture (he’s not lying when he later denies that the son has any of his blood). And I myself missed the moment of transition from Texas to California until I suddenly started to recognize landscapes and hear names like San Luis Obispo, Tehachapi & Modesto. I’ll wager that there are more than a few viewers who think the whole film occurs in the Lone Star State.

Day-Lewis isn’t always my cup of tea as an actor. I wasn’t particularly impressed with him in Gangs of New York, tho he received an Oscar nomination for the role. And it was impossible to see him in My Left Foot (for which he won the Oscar for best actor) without thinking that I knew a much better writer with many of these same issues in Larry Eigner. Left Foot thus came across as melodramatic, sentimental & wildly overacted. What would it have looked like if I hadn’t known somebody whose physical vocabulary was every bit as restricted as Larry’s? I really have no clue. But in fact I generally have preferred Day-Lewis’ earlier performances, especially in My Beautiful Laundrette & The Unbearable Lightness of Being, both of which came out at least 20 years ago.

This film, however, was made for Day-Lewis. In many ways, it’s about what he can do as an actor. He’s on-screen 98 percent of the time & often is asked to do nothing more than glower or convey an intense-but-withheld emotion via his lower lip. Most of his dialog is a lie, and we have to see this in a way so that we understand it and the characters on screen would not. Plainview’s walk prior to the broken leg is as distinct & unmodern (or at least unsophisticated) as his limp is later. His eyebrows are always “in character.” There are a couple of moments, particularly when he’s expressing anger, where I don’t quite believe him, but they add up to less than a minute’s worth of this film’s total of 158.

It’s become fashionable in recent years, especially in westerns – and the Texas oilfields around Marfa a century ago certainly qualify – to have the protagonist come across as scruffy, which helps strip the veneer of glamour from Day-Lewis’ presentation. Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma looks like an escapee from the Village People by comparison. But the origin of this approach, of course, is precisely Bogart’s Dobbs in Sierra Madre. In the inevitable comparison between the two actors, Bogart wins hands down. Not only is Bogart’s role permanently memorable – once you’ve seen the wild glint of Fred C. Dobbs, you’ll never forget it – but Bogart has to share the screen with some major performers in Walter Huston – he had once been D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln – and Tim Holt, not to mention classic character actors in Barton Maclane and Alfonso Bedoya.¹ Anderson really gives Day-Lewis only Paul Dano & Kevin O’Connor to work with. Although Dano’s baby-faced evangelist appears not to age a day between 1902 and 1927, the young actor does a decent job standing up to Day-Lewis under difficult circumstances (tho he does far better when confronting his own father, played by Willis). It’s not a fair situation for Dano or for Day-Lewis.

I’m not convinced that I’d vote for Day-Lewis for best actor were it up to me – I think Emile Hirsch actually handles a more difficult role with far greater subtlety in Into the Wild, but Hirsch didn’t even get nominated. On the other hand, if you want to spend an evening watching one of the best give us a damn fine version of Bogie, then There Will Be Blood is your film.

 

¹ Sierra Madre made Bedoya’s career in the US, although he’d already made over 50 films in Mexico.

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